Bernie’s a really nice guy. I mean really nice. There are a lot of people in Carthage, Texas that still think so, even though he just shot an old woman in the back four times.
Bernie (Jack Black, in a performance as good as any in his career) is the local assistant funeral director in the small town of Carthage, Texas. Bernie might be gay, he’s actively involved in local theater productions, and he’s a spendthrift. Bernie’s specialty is comforting old widows, so when Marjorie Nugent’s (Shirley MacLaine) oil-rich husband dies, he’s immediately on the case. Marjorie and Bernie quickly become the odd-couple, but their relationship rapidly evolves from one of friendship to servitude, taking its toll on Bernie’s perpetually sunny disposition and leading to a surprising crime.
Jack Black almost makes Bernie worth the watch. His title character is effeminate and funny, but without ever mocking the type. Both MacLaine and Matthew McConaughey, who plays Danny Buck, the local district attorney who doggedly pursues Bernie in court despite public opinion, are underused. Buck could well be an interesting character, the foil to Black’s positive Bernie, but instead he’s relegated to the fringe of the narrative, delivering a few one-liners and a monologue in court. MacLaine spends much of the film over-emoting, but is still serviceable as the cantankerous widow. Unfortunately the laughs and pathos coming from Black aren’t enough to mask a repetitive script that severely lacks any interesting drama.
The opening and closing credits both indicate that Bernie is based off of a true story as written by Skip Hollandsworth, senior editor at Texas Monthly Magazine. The story itself has the elements for a conman narrative in the tradition of recent successes Catch Me If You Can or The Informant! but Hollandsworth and Linklater (who co-wrote the script) rely too heavily on a pseudo-documentary interview style and fail to see that reality might not be as strong as a fictional account. Where the aforementioned films are successful in their respective intimate looks into the inner-workings of the mind of the swindler, Bernie plays it too lightly, breezing over any psychological implications.
But the ultimate failure of Bernie is the structure. Linklater and Hollandsworth spend about 50% of the narrative on interviews with various residents of Carthage recounting their initial impressions of Bernie and Marjorie, expounding on everything from the nature of their relationship, to his sexuality, to the crime itself. It’s when the script moves to a more traditional style of fictional filmmaking that Bernie becomes interesting and dynamic. Unfortunately, Linklater seems far more interested in the eclectic population than the actual drama at-hand.
The construction leads to several tonal shifts. Bernie begins as a dry comedy interested in the unique north-Texas town, becomes a murder mystery, and ends as a dark legal drama that verges on the tragic. But none of it really gels and the shifts from tone to tone, like the shifts from act to act, are clunky and lacking cohesion.
Is Bernie eccentric romance film? Murder mystery? Courtroom drama? Christopher Guest-styled mockumentary? It wants to be all of the above and wastes too much energy trying to cram itself full of a myriad of styles and not enough on good old-fashioned suspense.
– Neal Dhand