Jack Black & Richard Linklater made the comedy classic “School of Rock” together in 2005 and won audiences over with the witty performances, strong screenplay (by Mike White), and great tunes. In more ways than some, they achieve a similar element seven years later in “Bernie”, the, how I like to put it, quasi-mock-doc crime comedy about a good man, who commits one act of sin and somehow comes out on top even if the results lead him to the bitter bottom.
The story is very weird, especially the fact that it’s a true story; set in a small town of Carthrage, TX, the film follows local mortician and all around ‘saint’ Bernie Tiede (Jack Black). The people love him, everybody loved him, he was the town hero, the town church leader, the town Christmas decorator, tax season worker, musical/theatrical director, pilot enthusiast, the list goes on. Whatever you think a decent human being could do in a small community, Bernie did 200% more, he believed in God, and giving back to others. So, it’s hard to grasp that Bernie, this soulfully well-endowed man of the Lord is capable of first-degree murder. Bernie’s main job was working as an assistant funeral home manager, to him presenting a person who recently passed on in the beautiful full form of an open casket is an art form, the first five minutes of the movie clearly presents this.)
Bernie (somewhat) falls for a rich widow, Mrs. Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), who to the town knows as a bitter old bitch with a capitol C. She’s mean, ruthless, ugly, controlling, and judgmental. However, to everyone’s amazement she falls for Bernie. She showers Bernie with love and money, and Bernie returns the favor by taking her around the world, giving her everything an enclosed woman deserves. Of course the vacation cannot last long, and that mean bat returns with a vengeance. She belittles and humiliates poor Bernie to a point where he’s blinded by sin, next thing he knows he’s holding an armadillo rifle and fires the weapon four times in Mrs. Nugent’s back. This is where the kicker comes in; for NINE WHOLE MONTHS Bernie fools the entire town making them believe she’s still alive!
This is a story that could almost come from the minds of the Coen brothers, and in someway it sort of feels that way. But, this is a factual story treated as so. The movie is set up half documentary style and half narrative. The towns people, others weirder than the next, stand up for Bernie and plead his case to us the viewer. The things they say are where the comedy really lights up. My favorite line is when this old lady says, ‘He only shot her four times, not five, that’s not too bad’, as opposed to what lady!?! But, the funny thing is, after an hour of watching Bernie, learning from him, feeling for him, his criminal act isn’t shadowed as complete evil. Bernie may be a lot of things, but he’s hardly a monster premeditated with murder. He sent apologies to the family from prison asking for forgiveness, to this day he makes it his mission in prison to better other inmates; teaching them prayers, arts & crafts, needle pointing, etc. What he did is unforgiveable, I’m not condoning murder onto someone you don’t like all because they’re a bitch/prick, but Bernie’s case is vastly unique, mainly because of his honest virtue in his character.
But, what really makes this movie work is the committed performance by Mr. Jack Black. The silly, whacky, tenacious, yahoo we’ve all come to love for some times now really let’s loose a different side of himself. He’s empathetic in this film, I can’t really remember the last time Jack Black has played off empathy this good (or at all). We briefly saw some of that in his character of Dewey in Linklater’s “School of Rock”, but the team here really finds a character audiences can have an emotional connection with. Those are the kind of roles I feel deserve recognition, especially Oscar worthy material. I would love nothing more than to see Jack Black earn some respective recognition for this role, but will he be given the chance? Can audiences accept him in this form where not only he’s playing such a great human being, but a great human being who commits an unforgiveable crime? It’s a shade of grey kind of film, but one I think people can handle.