Bernie is about one thing: the pleasures and eccentricities of small-town life. Is it a great film? It doesn’t matter. I can guarantee you’ll watch it again in the years ahead — because you enjoy every single minute. If it falls down in one way, it sometimes felt as if director Richard Linklater (Slacker, Before Sunset, School of Rock) veered a little too much toward mocking small-town types, as if the point was less to document the delights of that life than to collect those funny-looking butterflies and put them in a glossy case for big-city folk to look at.
I’ve been to this restaurant (in Bastrop, TX). The banana pudding is excellent. And yes, the entire place is lined with wood paneling and taxidermied animal heads.
Bernie tells the real-life story of assistant funeral director Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), a sweet and closeted gay man who’s pretty much the most beloved man in Carthage, TX. His cosmetic work preparing the recently deceased for their open-casket funerals is loving, careful, flattering. He sings like a bird in the church choir and has a way with all the L.O.L.s (little old ladies). He helps people with their taxes and directs (and stars in) all the musicals at the community theater. When he befriends the meanest and richest woman in town, Margie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), he does so because he’s such a people person. Margie is so entranced by his kindness and attention that she falls a little bit in love. And then she turns mean and possessive.
Why is he so loyal to her? Because he’s a really nice man, and because he’s trapped by the golden handcuffs of her wealth, which pays for an awful lot of expensive travel and pedicures.
My favorite part of the film isn’t the terrific acting by Black and MacLaine — both of whom are great — but the interviews with real-life Carthage residents who provide all the social context, character analysis, gossip, and local color about life in a town of less than 7,000 people. Perched on porches, or in feed warehouses and cafés, the locals offer up commentary that propels the narrative forward and reminds you where the story’s going.
At some point Bernie cracks after Margie berates him one too many times. He shoots her four times in the back with an armadillo gun, hides her body in a box freezer, and proceeds to spend a whole lot of her money helping out everyone he can.
These interviews (and the ways they’re staged) are just great — using local Texasisms and strong accents that flow so fast & furious that you’ll try to remember them for future use. Explaining how mean Margie was, one woman says, “Her nose was so high up she would drown in a rainstorm.” Another offers: “Honey, there were people in this town who’d have shot her for $5.” Describing his distrust of the bombastic, self-promoting local district attorney, one resident says, “I wouldn’t let him work on my car.” Best of all is the tirade spit out by one guy, during the film’s final credits, about the rubes who live in the next town over. Or the denial by another woman that Bernie possibly could have been gay: “Our Lord always wore sandals and never got married and had 12 male disciples … and nobody ever called them queer.”
But sometimes these interviews just feel, well, a little rehearsed — as if Linklater had seen some TV footage or an in-print interview with this resident, and asked them to reprise it for the film. Maybe it’s because I loved this commentary so much that those moments when it feels practiced detracted from my enjoyment so much.
Don’t get me wrong: it doesn’t ruin the film by any means. When Bernie enters regular rotation on one of those basic-cable channels, I’ll tune in every time. It’s a film made by someone who loves those accents, those Texasisms, those eccentric faces who hold forth with astute summaries of their neighbors’ characters.
But on those occasions when the film starts to feel as if Linklater had made it so his big-city friends could get a big guffaw out of those over-decorated dens with endless taxidermied animal heads … well, let’s just say, in the parlance of the state, that dog won’t hunt.
And that’s my only objection.