Bernie (2012) is not about Bernie Madoff, but it is based on a true story. It’s a murder least foul, set in East Texas with an 81 year old woman as the victim. It’s a comedy. First, it was “Grandma Got Ran Over By a Reindeer” and we all laughed, but now we’re shooting her in the back four times. Hardi-har-har. Where does it end? Where does it all end? You start letting these things happen in fiction and you strain our belief in the rule of law. You strain our belief in the rule of law, maybe I’ll start killing millionaire crones and giving the money to the poor. Who’d be laughing then? Who? There’s a quiz at the end to see if you can tie this introduction together with the rest of the review.
Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) is a pillar of the community of Carthage, Texas. He took a job in the local funeral home and was incredibly well-suited for it. He was friendly with the widows, very conscientious of his duty to those involved in, and had all the people skills. He’s got his quirks, but who hasn’t? He minces a bit, but who doesn’t? He’s a part of the chamber of commerce, the local theater group, and sings at the church. Some years in, he strikes up a relationship with one of the most hated women in town, Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), who happens to be a millionaire. What starts as a devoted friendship begins to morph into something a little less pleasant. She fires her maids and such and Bernie takes over those roles, he goes half time at the funeral home, they go on a lot of trips, and Bernie is at her beck and call at all hours of the day. One day, he kills her. Then DA Danny Buck (Matthew McConaughey), comes in to prosecute. But lo and behold, the community is a bit mixed on what they think should happen.
This is a hilarious movie done in a pseudo documentary framework—docudrama is perhaps the word. Jack Black is better than I’ve ever seen him. Granted, previews for most of the movies he’s made in the past many years means I’ve steered clear. I enjoyed Orange County (2002), The School of Rock (2003), and some of his other silly stuff, but he’s not Chris Farley though he’s gaining that kind of label. This movie pushes back hard on that label. He portrays a comic character, certainly. The effeminate southerner is an established role. But he inhabits that role walking closely on the edge of camp, but always remaining real.
Shirley MacLaine is in excellent form in this movie. The last thing I saw her in that was worthy of her was Guarding Tess (1994)—good God, that was 18 years ago—and since then it’s all been a series or rare but poor choices. Her character is pretty wicked in this movie and that’s always fun to watch. She isn’t given very much range to explore and her wickedness isn’t as excused as you’d expect from a dark comedy. You’d expect some kind of justification or excuse for her behavior that makes you think, “See, that’s why she’s like that.” That isn’t necessary, I think, because the structure of the movie is designed to remain mostly on the edge and to portray the perceptions of the witnesses/gossips.
It is these witnesses and gossips that take this movie from good to great. The things they come out with are hilarious and well written. Maybe I should say “aptly written.” Now, while Wikipedia says there were segments of real interviews, the credits on IMDB, which has a long cast list, make no mention of those playing themselves. So, I’m going to go with IMDB on this one. Don’t mistake me, this isn’t a mockumentary, it just intercuts interviews with the traditionally-presented narrative.
The truth of the story creates competing forces. On the one hand, if you’re from Texas, you know how real these characters are. One of the interviewees—short hair, often in purple—makes you laugh immediately because you’ve met her dozens of times. It’s not that I laugh at her, with a “how quaint” hovering in the air, but like I’m laughing at the persistent quirk of a friend that hates the smell of seafood or the French. Is pleasantly reassuring and that makes me chuckle. It is also written so genuinely that I wasn’t ever sure if they were actors. Then again, upon reflection, it’s a pretty dark thing we’re laughing about. This is murder and, forgive me for speaking for you, we don’t really care.
Side bar: I’m a moral utilitarian and in an independent project on the subject, I posited that our intuition against the murder of bad people for abstractly acknowledged good ends was a failure of imagination. My proof was to describe a terrible person in some detail. Turns out, I needn’t have had her eat children on Ritz crackers. As a legal matter, I couldn’t imagine letting this guy get away with murder, but the film Bernie should have gotten a deal of some kind. She was guilty of considerable emotional abuse and while he should have broken free, things are more complicated than that in the moment.
This is great. A quality comedy that’s also a bit of a thinker. Nothing misses. You should see it if you can.
P.s. Don’t like the poster one bit. It’s misleading as to events and, more importantly, it makes Bernie look like a bit of a weirdo/idiot. That is not the tone of the movie in the least.