Tour de Force for Jack Black in Fact-Based ‘Bernie’

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CHICAGO – Jack Black is a smart and interesting actor. Not content to ride on the modern day John Belushi-type roles that might have pigeonholed him, Black portrays “Bernie,” a convincing conniver in Texas, based on a true story. Veterans Matthew McConaughhey and Shirley MacLaine add spice to the brew.

Proving again that truth is stranger than fiction, director Richard Linklater (“Me and Orson Welles,” “Dazed and Confused”) goes back to his native Texas and creates a dark comedy based on the memorable personalities that are involved in this true story of a rich widow and her caretaker named Bernie. Jack Black establishes the Bernie character early, and precisely delivers all of the permutations that makes the circumstance so unbelievable. The story is driven by Black, and he makes the character both sympathetic and clearly off-kilter.

Bernie (Jack Black) is a mortician, looking for a new town in Texas to ply his trade. He lands at the Hawthorne Funeral Home in Cathage, Texas. He becomes one of the town’s favorite sons, meticulous in handling grieving families and especially the rich widows left behind. One of those widows is Majorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), spouse of a deceased weathy oilman. She is unrepentantly unpleasant, and only Bernie can seem to get through to her. Before long, he has quit his other job to solely handle her estate and care.

Shirley MacLaine (Marjorie) and Jack Black as the Title Character in ‘Bernie’
Shirley MacLaine (Marjorie) and Jack Black as the Title Character in ‘Bernie’
Photo credit: Millennium Entertainment

The relationship between the two is chattel for town gossip, and even in that realm starts to unravel. Nugent’s penchant for arrogance and rudeness begins to wear at Bernie, until finally he shoots her four times in the back with a shotgun. After hiding the body, the case begins to build against him, and the town’s District Attorney, Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey) is set to prosecute the murderer. But given Bernie’s reputation as a nice man, and Nugent’s opposite rep in the town, that might not be as easy as it seems.

Jack Black has an instinct for creating characters that jump off the screen. His Bernie is low keyed, but intense in his desire to create a lifestyle off another person’s dime. He is a jack of all trades, especially in his desire to be helpmate, chief mourner and town entertainer. Bernie is gay but Black portrays him asexually, and that lack of judgement allows Black to radiate an everyman quality. Some of the elaborate musicals Bernie put on for the community theater are portrayed, and the “Seventy-Six Trombones” staging from “The Music Man” is one of the best movie scenes of the year, because of Black.

The two veteran supporting actors, Matthew McConaughey and Shirley MacLaine also lend a sure quality to the often dark proceedings. It’s great to see McConaughey play a character role, obviously relishing the chance to project his Texas roots. He takes lawyer Danny Buck Davidson by the throat, and questions the morality of a beloved person, still a murderer. MacLaine is able to make the character of the Widow Nugent understandable, there is a person behind the mask of bitterness. It is reminiscent of how MacLaine was able to make her character in “The Apartment” (1960) work so well. It’s that bit of vulnerability she invites in each of those characters, 52 years apart.

Richard Linklater, who has called this film his “East Texas ‘Fargo.’” structures the narrative in a faux documentary style, using many of the residents in Cathage that are tied to the case, or portraying the real people involved. There is an honesty to this that really makes the story pop, despite the unsavory elements. It was a real murder with real people, and the balance of the story is weighed succinctly in Linklater’s sure hand, one that is based in tribute to that part of the United States.

Matthew McConaughey (Danny Buck Davidson) Makes his Point in ‘Bernie’
Matthew McConaughey (Danny Buck Davidson) Makes his Point in ‘Bernie’
Photo credit: Millennium Entertainment

If the film falters in any way, it’s probably in the drawn out conclusion. Once the murder takes place, the followup isn’t as fun as the set up – as it is in real life. However, in its portrayal of the particular culture of East Texas, the precision is so unerringly apparent, that throughout every moment of the true story there is a lesson to be experienced. That doesn’t happen in most movies.

In the lyrics to “Seventy-Six Trombones,” the title instrument leads the big parade, with a 110 coronets close behind. To use that analogy, behind that is the virtuoso performance of Jack Black, using his unique talent to create an empathy for the life of Bernie and the people of East Texas.

“Bernie” continues its limited release in Chicago on May 18th. See local listings for theaters and show times. Featuring Jack Black, Matthew McConaughey and Shirley MacLaine. Screenplay adapted by Skip Hollandsworth (from his article) and Richard Linklater. Directed by Richard Linklater. Rated “PG-13”

HollywoodChicago.com senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

By PATRICK McDONALD
Senior Staff Writer
HollywoodChicago.com
pat@hollywoodchicago.com

© 2012 Patrick McDonald, HollywoodChicago.com

Manny be down's picture

"Bernie"

Its’ one of the best movie that both Jack Black and Shirley MacLaine has been in together I love the way Jack play the con men and Shirley was great she still has it man!!!

ziggy one of the best's picture

Bernie

Man what a good movie plus its’ base on true life this has been going on for a while the fact that seniors has been rob for years.

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