Bernie tells the story of an assistant funeral home director in the small town of Carthage, Texas. This film is based on the true story of Bernie Tiede (played by Jack Black), a mortician who befriended a very wealthy, elderly widow (Shirley MacLaine) after the death of her husband, then later, shot her to death. According to the movie, she was a very nasty woman and he was the most liked man in his town. So liked, in fact, the district attorney (played by Matthew McConaughey) had to have his trial moved to a different county so as not to have any of his peers on the jury, as they'd all admitted that if they were on the jury, Bernie would not be convicted of anything.
I'd heard this movie was very good by several people and I read it received 91% positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, but I hadn't taken the time to find out anything specific about the movie beforehand and I am very glad I didn't. This movie surprised me. I heard it was really funny, and while there were traces of humor in it, it wasn't the kind of humor you would expect from someone like Jack Black. The movie included interviews from the actual townspeople of Carthage, which was really the humorous part of the movie. For anyone from Texas, and especially anyone who has visited or lived in East Texas, you will hear expressions like "She was borned all pruned up," talking about Ms. Nugent's face when she was born, meaning that even as a baby, she looked mad and angry. Or, when they were discussing Bernie's sexual orientation and saying things like "he is light in the loafers." Now imagine it with a great East Texas accent and by colorful townspeople, and the movie has captured East Texas to a tee. One especially funny part of the movie was one townsperson's description of Texas, referring to the fact that Texas is really five countries, Austin being one with "hairy legged women," and the Panhandle with no personality whatsoever, since no one really knows what goes on up there.
The real treat of this movie comes from Black's performance. I really do love watching him, he is a likeable actor, but he has a tendency to play up his cuteness a bit too much for my taste in many films. In Bernie, he was very convincing as a possibly gay, but 100% Christian man who cared for others, directed town musicals, donated items to charities and people when they needed it, led the worship in his church service, and overall, just a very nice man. I really don't know much about the real Bernie, his mannerisms, or how he spoke, but I do know that the character Black created was incredibly likeable and convincing.
As the movie goes on, it is revealed that Ms. Nugent's character, played by Shirley MacClaine, was an incredible difficult, nasty woman who no one in the town liked very much, including her own family. So imagine MacClaine in Steel Magnolias, Terms of Endearment...you get my drift. Her performance was nothing we've never seen before, as I've seen this particular character several times for her in her acting past. Bernie befriended her as he did with everyone, and for whatever reason, she took a liking to him, and began buying him things and taking him on expensive trips around the world. She even went so far as to put him in her will, bequeething all of her estate to him, including making him power of attorney. We never get the sense that Bernie has instigated this in any way, except with we hear from the DA, Denny Buck, played by Matthew McConaughey. In fact, we get the feeling that she did it as a way of guilting him into spending more time with him, all of his time, actually. She even convinced him to work for her full time as a maid, a chauffer, and general errand boy, which he did gladly in the beginning, but slowly led him into resenting and hating her, causing him one day to shoot her in the back four times while in her garage. After doing so, he immediately prays for forgiveness, then hides her body in the freezer and goes on about his life, never telling anyone she is dead. In fact, the nine months she spent in the freezer, he further cemented his reputation as the nicest, most liked person in town by investing in failing businesses, donating a prayer wing to the church, and giving away money and several items to townspeople in need, all with her money. Denny Buck is convinced he is a gold-diggar and a cold-blooded murderer, but no amount of speaking to the townspeople will convince them otherwise. All in all, Matt's performance was fine, nothing to write home about, just Matt being Matt in an uglier outfit. I wished I liked him more, I really do. Sigh.
Honestly, I think the reason I enjoyed this movie as much as I did was because I love this genre. This was not a mockumentary, as it was based on a true story, and the interviews were with actual townspeople, not characters. With that said, if you've ever seen movies like Drop Dead Gorgeous or Best In Show, which I have and I love, you could easily see how these townspeople could end up looking like those movies, a caricature of themselves, and they never do. You could also see how Black could have overdone his role so much that his character stopped behaving as a true person and started behaving as a caricature as well. In fact, with the amount of singing Black does in this movie, and there is alot, and the amount of old gospel hymms that are featured, including a local theater rendition of 76 Tromobones, Black could have easily taken this character to the extreme. But he doesn't. His perfomance was easy-going and surprising.
All in all, I'd say this movie is very good and worth an hour and a half of your time, especially if you enjoy dark humour movies. Oh, and be on the lookout for Matt's real life mom, an actual resident of Longview. She is the blonde that is sitting next to him in the diner, I thought that was a nice touch.