Not since Mr. Joyboy, the mortuary cosmetician from Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One, has there been a more memorable mortician than Bernie Tiede. In addition to making the residents of Carthage Texas look better dead than they did alive, Bernie sings in the church choir, directs – and usually stars in – local musical productions and even helps his neighbors with their tax returns. Consequently, no one is surprised when Bernie reaches out to console Marjorie Nugent, the richest and meanest widow in town. Friendless and estranged from her family, Marjorie initially spurns Bernie’s visits, but he wears her down with bath salts, cupcakes and persistence. Soon, the two are inseparable, cruising the world together and indulging in forays to New York to see the best of Broadway.
It isn’t long before Marjorie starts giving Bernie control of her business affairs. Unbeknownst to his benefactor, he becomes Carthage’s own Robin Hood, dispensing Marjorie’s money to the needy in the community.
Ultimately, Marjorie demands all of Bernie’s time and attention, slowly suffocating him until, in a moment of desperation, he snaps.
At this point, it is important to note that everything you’ve read so far is absolutely true. Director Richard Linklater and Texas Monthly contributor Skip Hollandsworth have adapted Hollandsworth’s 1998 article about East Texas’s oddest couple into a film starring Jack Black and Shirley McLaine. In both cases, the casting is inspired. Black’s Bernie is joyous and generous. He bubbles over with so much love for all God’s creatures, great and small, that it’s easy to see why he is beloved by everyone who knows him, even the most conservative Carthaginians, who suspect that Bernie is “a little light in the loafers.” Black’s bravura performance in the opening scene alone is worth the price of admission.
Marjorie could easily come off as a two-dimensional grinch, but not in MacLaine’s capable hands. Her character’s defenses are always up and the corners of her mouth seem cemented down, but MacLaine reveals a few fine cracks in Marjorie’s imperious facade. Just when she appears touchingly vulnerable, she erupts like Vesuvius.
Matthew McConaughey is all preening and pomposity as district attorney Danny Buck Davidson, who never met a camera he didn’t want to hog.
What makes Bernie a semi-documentary is the rest of the cast, a mix of actors and the actual townspeople of Carthage who freely share their candid, and often hilarious, opinions of Bernie and Marjorie. Part of the fun of this film is trying to tell the SAG members from the folks who actually sang with Bernie in the First United Methodist choir.
Linklater’s script and direction work like a dream because, while Bernie is essentially a true crime tale, the film has a down-home loosey-goosey quality that gives it humor and humanity. It’s folksy and as full of country idioms as a tick on a dog. Truth is certainly stranger than fiction and, in Bernie’s case, it makes for damned entertaining filmmaking.
Running Time: One hour and 44 minutes
Bernie opens today at at Landmark’s E Street Theatre and Bethesda Row Cinema.