More Merry Than Morbid

This mockumentary tells a true-crime story with a warm Texas twang

One of the many delights of Bernie, the offbeat new comedy by Richard Linklater, is that it’s just warm and real enough to keep you smiling and awed at the same time. It is also the only movie I have ever liked Jack Black in, one of the few times Matthew McConaughey has ever come anywhere close to giving a tolerable performance, and features Shirley MacLaine’s best role in years. A lot to like here, and I liked it all.

Bernie, based on a Texas Monthly article, is the eccentric true-crime story of a 1997 murder in Carthage, Texas, in which 81-year-old Marjorie Nugent, the richest, meanest and most-hated woman in East Texas, was found stuffed in the bottom of her freezer, hammered to death by her devoted heir, a porky mortician named Bernie Tiede. It was a headline-making scandal, but the friends and neighbors of the beloved Bernie rallied to his defense and turned him into a hero.

This is the story, told in a mock documentary style that derives most of its humor from interviews with actual citizens of Carthage who showered Bernie with support and rallied no sympathy for his murder victim. It is quite a story, and an unusual movie more merry than morbid.

From his arrival in Carthage, Bernie was a hands-on kind of guy, tending his corpses at the funeral parlor with loving care—shaving facial hair from nostrils and inserting super glue on eyelids to avoid embarrassing surprises in open-casket viewings. Bernie won kudos for his tender talent for body removal and his artistry for embalming and cosmetology. Business boomed and everyone went to Bernie. Then he met his match in a monstrous old trout named Marjorie Nugent.

When her oil-rich husband passed on, “Miss Margie” went through the motions of a funeral, hating everything and every mourner, cutting her relatives out of the will, and living up to the town’s assessment of her as a “mean old hateful bitch.” When we first see MacLaine, scowling with venom, her face screwed into wrinkled ridges of sour dough, her eyes slits of reptilian fury reducing everything in sight to ashes, she looks like a pterodactyl.

But Bernie was determined to win her over. Considering it his job to visit widows after their husband’s memorials, he delivered her gifts only to get the door slammed in his face. But eventually she started to thaw when he took her to events like the Van Cliburn piano competitions in Fort Worth. Soft as dough, fastidious to a fault, smelling of cologne and more than a wee bit androgynous, Bernie even sang show tunes and collected men’s fitness magazines. Was he gay? Small-town rumors dominated front-porch gossip, but Miss Margie didn’t care. She had found a devoted new slave, appointed him her business manager, took him on vacation trip and left her entire estate to him.

But as Bernie grew more disillusioned with his meal ticket, the citizens of Carthage cemented their affection for him as he bought them gifts, offered financial advice and paid for a new prayer wing at the Methodist church. Growing jealous, Miss Margie turned possessive and so unbearable that convenient garden tools became irresistible.

But Linklater’s talent for drawing out the most intimate, unedited and inadvertently charming responses from people in coffee shops and wicker rocking chairs turns even tragedy into chuckles of joy.

Black displays an unctuous sweetness punctuated by a welcome restraint he’s never shown before. The great MacLaine is fearless in her total concentration on playing a human dragon. Age and the weather have robbed her of nothing in the way of comic timing and technique.

The events in Bernie are tied together by interviews with corny down-home locals. When Bernie goes to trial, the state even moves to change the location because the defendant is so popular the prosecutors fear they can’t get a conviction. The only person who seeks justice (for highly suspicious personal reasons) is the district attorney who acts like a sheriff, Danny Buck Davidson, played by McConaughey with more charisma than usual.

It’s a delectable slice of Southern Gothic humor, a sideshow of rednecks and Bubbas and Aunt Tooties. Linklater has always demonstrated a keen ear for what people say and his direction has compassion and insight. Actual newspaper clippings illustrate the mayhem.

Even in prison, Bernie’s indefatigable adventures continue. Would you believe he now gives cooking lessons to the other inmates and conducts Bible studies behind bars while his friends await his return to Carthage? This is all public record, and the story is far from over. I, for one, eagerly await the sequel to Bernie.

Bernie (PG-13) ★★★★☆

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