The real stars of Richard Linklater's "Bernie" are, unquestionably, the townspeople of Carthage, Texas.
In documentary-like interviews, the East Texas locals (a mix of real Carthage folk and Texas actors) fill the film from start to finish — a gang of colorful gossips whose heavy accents and wry prattle essentially narrate "Bernie."
What drives their fascination is the true-life tale of a mannered, devout mortician, Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), who in 1997 was arrested for killing the elderly millionaire heiress Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine). The remarkable thing about the case is just how out of character such an act is for Tiede.
As Black plays him, he's cartoonishly cheerful — not just a churchgoing man, but a member of the choir and just about every other community group. He's beloved around town, especially among, as one townsperson terms it, the "DOLs" (dear old ladies).
Even Nugent, who is as bitterly grim as Tiede is hopelessly bright, eventually succumbs (that is, eases a sliver) to allow Tiede into her life. He becomes her companion and manservant, filing her toe nails and reading her Reader's Digest.
Her possessiveness (MacLaine is hardened as never before) eventually cracks Tiede who, in a moment of fury that astounds even him, shoots her in the back. The fallout brings in the smooth, self-promoting district attorney Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey, perfectly cast and with perfect Texas D.A. eyewear).
The script was co-written by Linklater and Skip Hollandsworth, whose 1998 Texas Monthly article is the basis of the film. Throughout, there's a tension of real life and fiction, and a pervading sense that fiction has little chance of matching the real thing.
"You cannot have grief tragically become comedy," Tiede advises while teaching the art of embalming — specifically, how to form a slight smile on the deceased.
"Bernie" never quite rises to full comedy, but remains locked in a state of satirical curiosity, marveling at its own contradictions. Black, who memorably starred in Linklater's "School of Rock," never gives in to a punch line, but his grand, absurdist performance is much closer to parody than realism.
With his pants pulled high on his round frame, a dark moustache and his incredible jumping eyebrows, Black effeminately strolls through the film. Tielde is portrayed as a closeted gay man, or as one Carthage citizen explains, "that dog don't hunt."
Often, maybe too often, he's singing, whether "Amazing Grace" at a funeral or "Love Lifted Me," full-throated while driving alone. But seeing Black, in full musical regalia, earnestly belt out "Seventy-six Trombones" can only be considered a pleasure.
One wishes "Bernie" gave in fully to dark satire and shed its milder tone. But it also could be that the film works better as a curiosity — a dark comedy that's not entirely dark and not quite a comedy, either.
The Austin-based Linklater ("Me and Orson Welles," ''Dazed and Confused") has by now amassed one of the more varied filmographies in contemporary American movies, and most everything he makes is worth seeing.
"Bernie" is his Preston Sturges comedy, an ode to small town Texas life. The town isn't appalled by Tiede's act; on the contrary, they're sympathetic. Tiede, after all, was a great neighbour and, to them, civil society is so prized as to outweigh a little ol' thing like murder.
Such clannishness ends at the city limits, though. When one townsperson maps his view of Texas, accounting for the "Dallas snobs" and the "liberal fruitcakes" of "the People's Republic of Austin," Linklater is clearly having fun.
"Bernie," a Millennium Entertainment release, is rated PG-13 for some violent images and brief strong language. Running time: 104 minutes. Three stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G — General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG — Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 — Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R — Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 — No one under 17 admitted.