15 January 2013 | dfranzen70
An unsolved mystery wrapped in a dark comedy
Although uneven and at times unfocused, Bernie is the kind of movie that hitches its wagon to the charisma of its star and goes along for the ride. Jack Black plays a solicitous, generous assistant funeral-home director in a small town who quickly gains the love and respect of the town, particularly the elderly folks, as he immerses himself into their lives. Black leaves the slapstick and crudity at home and instead goes the route of Ben Stiller in Greenburg, although not quite as dramatic, and he's really good in the role. In the end, though, one might wonder what the point of the movie was, and for a comedy - even a dark one - there are a lot of unanswered questions at film's end.
Bernie arrives in town and lucks upon a job at the local funeral parlor. He takes great care in making the deceased look as good as possible, from trimmed eyelashes to the positioning of the hands and head. Bernie takes his job seriously. He runs the funerals, leading the mourners in song, reading from the Bible, and so on; he comforts the widows and does all he can to ease their pain. He's a true find, right?
One of these old biddies is Mrs. Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), a despised, bitter older woman who has money and no friends whatsoever. All overtures to communicate and bond with Mrs.Nugent by the town are for naught. Except for Bernie, who - as his custom - pays his respects after the funeral to the new widow. After the second visit, she invites him in, and over some time they become friends. The change in Mrs. Nugent is remarkable; she is a nicer person and much happier. She and Bernie go on vacations and other trips together. Finally, she feels, someone who does not hate her.
Mrs. Nugent gets Bernie to quit his job at the funeral home and work for her part time - essentially as a servant. Seems like a sweet deal at first, but eventually she becomes paranoid that he'll leave her at any moment, and he becomes concerned that she's turning into quite the possessive witch. That, as the synopsis might tell you on other sites - this is not a spoiler - induces him to perform a most heinous deed.
The story is told in the framework of a documentary, with on-camera exposition provided by the town's denizens. Most are gossipy, but none of them stand out as mean-spirited - just normal folks, as they might say. About the only two characters who don't open up to the camera are Bernie and Mrs. Nugent themselves. This little trick by director Richard Linklater helps not only move the plot along but also serves us sometimes conflicting information, depending on the source - even when we see things with our own eyes.
The first half of the story is amusing, mostly about how wonderfully generous Bernie is to everyone. And then the crime occurs, and the various citizens react differently. But here's the rub - Bernie is such a magnificent guy, there are some who don't even care if he IS guilty. Star district attorney Danny Buck (Matthew McConaughey) has an open-and- shut case, complete with a confession. All that remains is the trial and the aftermath.
This is more of a character study - of Bernie alone - than anything else. It could have been played for sharp laughs or even as a suspenseful thriller. Linklater plays it more or less straight, essentially saying, "Here's your man, here's what others think of him, what do you think?" And indeed, what are we to think? There are some head-scratching questions by the end. Here's a non-spoiler one: Why was Bernie even in that town? Did he choose it randomly? Did he premeditate the events that unfolded? Okay, three questions, but all valid. None will ruin the movie for you. See it for Black and MacLaine and a realistic look at small-town Texans.