Rating: 4 stars
Richard Linklater, whose directing has always been quirky and bold, adapts this stranger-than-fiction crime story and does justice to the utterly bizarre story of a friendship gone wrong.
Based on a true story, Bernie (Jack Black), a nicer-than-nice, highly religious assistant funeral director befriends Majorie Nugent (Shirley MacClaine), a mean-spirited widow.
The two meet at the funeral of Majorie’s husband. Bernie checks up on her and manages to get through the ice-cold façade of the widow, and the two are soon jet-setting around the world. Bernie becomes Majorie’s primary care-giver, and she becomes increasingly possessive of his time.
Bernie is not immune to Majorie’s riches. He indulges a habit of buying airplanes, and most of all, for giving things away. In a fit of rage, he murders Majorie, and the story gets even weirder.
Linklater combines filmed footage with actual interviews with folks familiar with the case, particularly the residents of Carthage, East Texas where the incident took place. Unlike other filmmaker’s who ridicule Texans, Linklater embraces them and lets their good, homely nature come through.
Jack Black really needs some TLC after piling on the laughs in 'Bernie'
Black is in great form, and even though he avoids being deliberately funny, he’s talented enough to evoke laughs without the need to reel for them. He plays the far-too-nice Bernie with total sweetness, and when Bernie does crack, there’s almost a sigh of relief to learn that he is human after all. It just might be one of the best performances of his career.
MacClaine looks weathered and spray tanned, but does a good enough job as the domineering Nugent who is the meanest woman in town. The loose cannon is Matthew McCounaghey, who portrays the local sheriff with exaggerated caricature.
Ultimately, the film asks at what point can a person be nice, particularly when he’s up against someone who’s just nasty. It’s all nicely packaged and sweetly delivered, and the humour and good nature that underlines the film just can’t help but make you root for sweet Bernie, the guy who just befriended the wrong widow.
The film morphs as it goes along, turning from comedy to an odd-couple love story to murder mystery to a legal thriller, while never letting go of it’s documentary elements. Linklater’s touch is subtle, and he lets the actors and the interviewees create the story and let it unravel.
It’s one of the year’s best little films, and Linklater shows you don’t need a whole lot to create an unforgettable movie.