Every once in a while a film comes along offering a character that is perfectly suited to the actor playing him or her. The performance isn’t so much acting anymore, but channeling. The illusion works best, however, when the character doesn’t stray too far from the actor’s own traits. In Bernie, audiences are treated to the perfect pairing of actor and character in this well done faux documentary.
Bernie is based on the true story of Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), who was an assistant funeral director in Carthage, TX, and who shot and killed a widow (Shirley MacLaine) he had befriended. The true story takes a bizarre turn when the small town only realized the woman was missing nine months after Bernie had killed her and hid her body in a deep freezer in her garage. The film adaptation follows Bernie’s story through his actions and through several interviews of the town’s inhabitants, including some who were involved in Bernie’s trial, like District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey). Is Bernie the hardened murderer with a deviant lifestyle that the DA is convinced he is? Or is Bernie the saint who was pushed past his limit? Bernie proves that in a small town full of gossips, a person is in many ways the creation of what people say about him or her.
Jack Black’s Bernie Tiede is an absolute standout performance masterfully captured by Richard Linklater. From the opening moments, featuring Black teaching a class on part of the funereal process, it’s obvious that Black has done his preparation and has fully expanded into every nook and cranny of his role. It’s the little choices that actors make – from smiles to hand gestures – that sell the believability of a new personality, and Black makes all the right choices here. On the other hand, Bernie is not too much of a stretch for Black who seems to possess fathomless pools of caring beneath a comic-hardened shell. Not to mention that both men are fond of singing. Here Linklater made a very smart decision in showcasing Black’s strong voice and musical talents – maybe to a fault. Some of the singing can feel gratuitous, but not enough to take away from enjoying Black’s acting performance.
The presentation is also handled in excellent fashion. Burgeoning documentarians should watch this film as a template for crafting a compelling narrative through interviews. Of course, the feat is a little easier to accomplish here because Bernie is a dramatization and the interviewees are town gossips who always seem to have something juicy to say. In fact, what they say is how they are defined in the film. Most of the townsfolk aren’t given any names throughout the movie, but by the end of the film audiences will feel like they know these people and can guess how they might respond to a given situation. It’s an engaging effect and definitely one of the highlights of the film.
Despite the excellent performances and presentation, Bernie feels unnecessarily long. At times, the film starts to drag. This is in large part due to not enough new information available to audiences, or perhaps too much minutia that doesn’t push the story along. In any case, once audiences start getting bored, not even Jack Black’s great singing voice is enough to make the time go by quickly. Thankfully, there are enough interesting things going on to keep at least a minimal engagement of the audience’s attention.
Ultimately, the draw for Bernie shouldn’t be its story. In these times of outrageous news, a body undiscovered in a freezer for nine months is not as shocking as it probably was when it actually occurred in the late 90’s. Furthermore, there isn’t enough dark comedy to really get viewers rolling in the aisles. This isn’t Weekend at Bernie’s after all. However, Bernie should be watched by anyone who appreciates fine acting, thoughtful direction and genuine dialogue. If nothing else, Bernie is an excellent depiction of humanity, with all its strengths and weaknesses.