Bernie (Short Review)

Bernie (2011), which is now in theaters, is hard to characterize. Is it a dark comedy, a dramatic take on a true-life crime, a southern set piece, a documentary, a mockumentary, or something else? Maybe it is a little of each.

In the film, Jack Black plays Bernie Tiede, an odd mortician who is beloved by many in the community of Carthage, Texas for his kindness to the bereaved and his respect for the recently departed. Eventually, he becomes close to an elderly millionaire widow played by Shirley MacLaine. When the widow is murdered, none of the local townspeople can believe when Bernie is accused of the murder.

The movie is based on a real-life story that appeared in Texas Monthly magazine. The film features interviews with real townspeople (mixed in with some interviews with actors playing people of the town). Some viewers may find the generous use of such interviews distracting, but Director Richard Linklater sees much of the story in the way that the townspeople reacted to Bernie. Linklater, who is from East Texas himself, has said that he tried to be respectful of the citizens of the town, noting that he sees something human in their desire to see Bernie acquitted simply because they liked him.

The movie is an odd gem, and it is not for everyone. What made the movie for me was the understated acting by actors who usually go over-the-top in other roles. Jack Black gives a subdued performance where you almost expect him to break character, much like watching Will Ferrell before he loses control. While I wish the film went a little deeper into Bernie’s character and his past, Black gives a three-dimensional performance of a character that could have easily drifted into a one-line joke. Similarly, Matthew McConaughey gives one of his most understated performances too, and Shirley MacLaine shows again how she can portray more emotion with her eyes and a few words than most actors can in a talky leading role.

If you see the film, make sure to stick around for the credits. You get to see the real Bernie along with some additional interviews. If you are interested in more information about the true story, check out this video (warning: If you have not seen the film, there are spoilers.)

Conclusion? Bernie is not for everyone, but a lot of people will be pleasantly surprised by the unusual little movie. If you are looking for something quirky and entertaining, even if it is not too deep and does not have many plot surprises, you should check out Bernie in theaters, or maybe just wait for it to come out on DVD.

Bonus Music Information: If while watching the movie you recognize the music playing in the background — during the murder and near the end of the film — and wonder what it is, you might know it from Bach. Or you might know it from Paul Simon. The music is the hymn “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded,” which ended up in the music of Paul Simon’s “American Tune.” Perhaps Linklater chose the tune in an attempt to subconsciously connect the story’s tragic elements to something unique about America. Check out our post on the history of the song.

Bonus Reviews Because Why Should You Believe Me? Bernie has a very respectable Rotten Tomatoes rating of 89% from critics and 87% from viewers. Jonathan Rossenbaum calls the movie a “masterpiece.” Tom Long of The Detroit News is a little more low key, calling the film “a pleasant little movie.” Saportareport says the film is the best of Jack Black’s career so far. The real Bernie Tiede seems satisfied with the movie, or at least with the fact that he got to meet Jack Black.

What did you think of Bernie? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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