On a November day in 1996, the most esteemed resident of Carthage, Texas, undertaker Bernie Tiede, shot and killed its least loved local, Marjorie Nugent. She was 81, widowed and rich (oil money), he was half her age, gay but discreetly so and without Marjorie's money, would have had only the $18,000 annual salary of an assistant funeral director. Their unlikely friendship—and its real-life deadly demise—is dramatized in Richard Linklater's loving ode to Texas eccentricity, Bernie, which features Jack Black as Bernie and Shirley MacLaine as the widow Nugent.
The script was co-written by Linklater and Skip Hollandsworth, whose 1998 Texas Monthly article is the basis of the film. Throughout, there's a tension of real life and fiction, and a pervading sense that fiction has little chance of matching the real thing.
After providing Jack Black with by far his best showcase to date in 2003's School Of Rock, Linklater again gets the most out of Black's devilish grin and zeal for musical performance. Black plays Tiede as the townspeople see him: a friendly, exuberant, civic-minded churchgoer who comforted the aggrieved, sang beautifully in the choir, and tolerated the meanest woman in town for as long as he could. Shirley MacLaine, with those old comic chops still very much intact, turns Nugent into a dark force of resistance to Tiede's cheery disposition. As Tiede becomes more of a presence in Nugent's life, joining her on trips overseas and eventually becoming a kind of manservant, the two engage in a battle of wills that changes both of them. Tiede's devotion wears down Nugent's defenses and brings some measure of happiness to her twilight years, while Nugent's sour, controlling personality suffocates her companion until he finally snaps.
As a black comedy, Bernie could use a little more snap; the genre of Ace In The Hole and Dr. Strangelove calls for a satirical conviction that runs counter to Linklater's relaxed wit. But Black's typically robust performance picks up some of the slack, and there are other compensations, too, in the complexity of Tiede and Nugent's relationship and the original concept of a town as a collective organism, with its own values and its own sense of right and wrong. At trial, Bernie Tiede pleaded temporary insanity; the Carthage of Bernie could plead likewise.
One wishes "Bernie" submitted fully to dark satire and shed its milder tone. But it also could be that the film works better as a curiosity - a dark comedy that's not entirely dark and not quite a comedy, either.