Bernie (USA)

2012 USA

SUNDAY 13th October 10.00 am
TUESDAY 15th October 8.00 pm
RUNNING TIME 104 minutes


In the tiny town of Carthage, Texas, assistant funeral director Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) is one of the town’s most beloved residents. After the funeral of her husband, Bernie befriends Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), an old, sour and lonely character, abandoned even by her small family. Soon Bernie and Marjorie become inseparable and Marjorie becomes dependent on Bernie, stifling his extroverted personality. When Marjorie disappears for months and later is discovered dead, Bernie Tiede is charged with murder, to the great surprise – and even anger – of the local community. (Based on a true story.)


It could almost be a Christopher Guest mockumentary. The way this hilarious true story involving Song and Death (and a large freezer) has been structured, allowing the small-town Texan townsfolk to act as knowing narrators, is positively inspired. The key to the great success of Richard Linklater’s astonishing film about the relationship between chubby Bernie, a genuine sweet man, and elderly Marjorie Nugent, the nastiest woman in town, is the sincere and affectionate way in which the characters are presented, coupled by a tone-perfect performance by Jack Black.

There is no twinkle in his eye, nor is there evidence of any of the zaniness to which we are accustomed from Black; instead, he personifies Bernie, the assistant funeral director who becomes the town’s favourite son. The opening scene, in which Bernie (Black) is demonstrating the tricks of the trade to beautify a corpse, is an example of plain daring. There is no disrespect because it is played straight, although who could remain straight-faced when Black brings out the super-glue to avoid a possible body malfunction? He even delivers the line “You cannot have grief becoming comedy”, with such sincerity, we buy it. He equally has the capacity to move us, like at the Mrs Senior Carthage Pageant which Bernie comperes and when he sings “Beautiful Dreamer” with tears in his eyes.

With their twangy Texan drawl, the Carthage locals cannot praise the highly versatile Bernie highly enough. As the Darling of the Little Old Ladies, he eulogises, he is a natural salesman, sings like a dream (in church and at the local theatrical productions) and even delivers flowers and cupcakes to the grieving. That is how Bernie makes the acquaintance of the town “bitch” Marjorie Nugent (Shirley Maclaine), who is described as being “not a very nice lady and whose nose is so high she would drown in a rainstorm”.

Soon Bernie becomes Marjorie’s chauffeur, errand boy, travel companion, power of attorney and full time servant. His buy-a-holic shopping tendencies, boosted by Marjorie’s wealth, allow his generosity to be felt by all the town’s residents, as he makes donations of all sizes for charities, church and individuals. The deterioration of their relationship, Marjorie’s possessiveness of Bernie and what happens next (with a rifle intended to stop the armadillo from digging up the garden) is understandable. So, too, is the relevance of the large freezer stored in the garage.

This is a story that is far stranger than fiction and the veracity with which the locals describe the events is unique. MacLaine as Marjorie is a sound idea but the inclusion of finger-pointing, broadly-drawling Matthew McConnaughey as Danny Buck the District Attorney is quite wonderful. You couldn’t invent a name like Scrappy Holmes (played by Brady Coleman) for the town’s Sherlock … er Sheriff. With so much love in the community, it is not surprising that the court proceedings are taken to the next county, where “the red necks have more tattoos than teeth”.

I loved every minute of this well-told and brilliantly created film that reinforces the complexities and incongruities of the human condition.



There’s nothing as weird as a weird real life story, I always say, and Richard Linklater has not only recognised this was one such great story, but he has the cinematic instincts to tell it superbly. This inventive filmmaker (I’m especially thinking of his Waking Life, Before Sunset, Me and Orson Welles), has morphed together story telling and documentary to forge a unique and perfect vehicle for the story of Bernie Tiede. A nicer murderer you’ll never meet. I use the word nice advisedly; Bernie is such a nice man, everyone in Carthage, Texas, says so – and they do get to say so in Linklater’s film. The townspeople talk about Bernie with such genuine warmth and in such detail, we get to know all about him. The seamless integration of doco and narrative is exquisite.

Linklater (himself a Texan) picked up the story from a newspaper article about Bernie in 1998 – and struggled for a decade to get the film made. The very device (including the townspeople so directly) that makes the film work so effectively was the stumbling block for investors. An irony worthy of Bernie himself, a man who wouldn’t hurt a fly, as they say.

I won’t spoil the story or take away the revelation pleasures that await audiences by going into too much detail; the main point to make is that (in collaboration with the journalist Skip Hollandsworth), Linklater has written a screenplay that relies entirely on the real elements. That’s the characters – including the townspeople – and the story of what happened. The juicy nature of the story doesn’t hide the darker pathos, but Linklater doesn’t dwell on that. Nor does he overstate the eccentricities; he doesn’t need to.

Jack Black gets to make the most of all his talents, both as a screen actor and as a singer; Bernie sings a lot, sometimes just driving along but mostly at funeral services, and he sings very well indeed. He acts very well, too, giving us a deeply developed character, infused with his own interpretation of Bernie. He’s a loner, but a highly regarded member of the Carthage community and a terrific funeral assistant, respectful of the dead under his hands for their final make over.

Shirley MacLaine does grumpy old sourpuss really well these days, her fire still burning deep inside. And Matthew McConaughey drawls his way through his role as the DA with the kind of careless callousness that marks out a genuine hard-ass.

The story is spun like a great yarn should be, setting the scene (learn how to prepare the dead for the casket, Lesson 101), filling in plenty of detail, adding colour, keeping up suspense, exploiting the humour . . .

It’s a unique work, a special film, a wonderful story, amazing characters; you’ll watch the end credits with a big smile on your face, which will stay there for a while.