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Bernie (8/10)

by Tony Medley

Runtime 104 minutes.

OK for children.

This is based on a true story inspired by an article in Texas monthly about the town of Carthage, Texas, generally, and two of his residents, Marjorie Nugent and Bernie Tiede. Director Richard Linklater, whose last film Me and Orson Welles (2009) was one of the three best films I saw that year, has once again hit a home run.

Tiede (Jack Black) is an assistant funeral director who was so nice he became one of Carthage is most beloved residents, teaching Sunday school, singing in the church choir, and always being there when ever anyone needed help.

Marjorie Nugent (Shirley Maclaine), on the other hand, was Carthage is most hated resident. She had a malign, cruel personality. Despite this, Bernie befriended her.

What happened next is told by the actual residents of Carthage in documentary style, cutting back and forth between Black and MacLaine playing the roles of Tiede and Nugent. Eventually the towns ambitious District Attorney, Danny buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey) becomes involved.

It's not often that McConaughey gets third billing in a film, since he is one of Hollywood's more attractive leading man. However McConaughey has spent most of his career in interior films, relying on his incomparable smile and charm to get by. Here he finds himself in a real film that requires real acting and he lives up to his promise. We can only hope that his days of insubstantial romantic comedies are over. Not that all romantic comedies are "insubstantial." Well directed and well written romantic comedies require as much acting talent as Shakespeare. McConaughey has found him stuck in romantic comedies that are neither well directed nor well-written.

Black and MacLaine both give Oscar quality performances. Heretofore Maclaine has generally relied on her beauty and charm. Here she is pictured as an ugly, shrunken, old shrew, and she pulls it off beautifully.

Black gives the best performance of his career as the sexually ambiguous funeral director who finally can't take it anymore and finds himself accused of a heinous crime.

While all three stars give marvelous performances, the best performances in the film are by the actual townspeople of Carthage who knew Bernie. While I was watching the film, I fully believed that these people were actors because they were so natural. However, truth be told, all the townspeople are the actual townspeople who are in Carthage during the time Bernie was the assistant funeral director. This adds enormous or a verisimilitude to the film. Further, the outtakes under the closing credits show that Black spent some time with the real Bernie.

This is one of the more entertaining movies I've seen this year.

April 19, 2012