*** (out of four)
Other filmmakers would condescend to the small-town folks of Carthage, Texas, who provide running commentary throughout the true-life tale in “Bernie.” Not Richard Linklater, though. The “Dazed and Confused” director, a Texas native himself, captures the perspectives of ordinary folks (talkin’ about fried mudcat and the like) set against a seriously bizarre story.
Portly, mustached Bernie (Jack Black) earns the love of the entire community while serving as a church leader and assistant funeral director, taking extra care to check in on widows after their husbands have passed. He even befriends grouchy Marjorie (Shirley MacLaine), who’s alienated all of her family and friends but enjoys spending time with Bernie, who accompanies her on lavish trips and begins managing her finances.
Obviously, this wouldn’t be much if something didn’t go wrong. Yet “Bernie” resists settling for easy answers as the story turns from a man willing to see the good in someone widely hated to a discussion of human nature and how people define their heroes and villains. Writing the script with Skip Hollandsworth (the writer of the Texas Monthly article on which the film is based), Linklater includes many actual comments from Carthage residents, who bring to life a small-town world in which public perception can dwarf what happens behind closed doors.
That said, “Bernie” and Black’s performance don’t quite get inside the development of Bernie and Marjorie’s relationship and any rising conflict within a man who liked the lifestyle but grew to despise a woman who mistreated him. Surely the Coen brothers would have gone darker with this story, but with rich subject matter and a funny supporting turn from Matthew McConaughey as a district attorney, “Bernie” remains an intriguing, often-hilarious exploration of emotion’s ability to triumph over reason. And reason’s knack for fighting back.
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