Bernie (2011)

 

Bernie

Shirley MacLaine and Jack Black canoodle, East Texas style.

(2011) True Crime Dramedy (Millennium) Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, Matthew McConaughey, Rick Dial, Veronica Orosco, Brandon Smith, Tommy G. Kendrick, Juli Erickson, Mona Lee Fultz, Sonny Carl Davis, Richard Robichaux, Matthew Greer. Directed by Richard Linklater

 

Truth can be stranger than fiction, but truth is also fairly subjective. Often our judgment when it comes to truth can be clouded by our emotions; even when presented with incontrovertible facts we can still cling to our beliefs that color our objectivity.

Bernie Tiede (Black) was one of the most well-liked men in Carthage, a small town in East Texas. He’s a pillar of his community; a lay preacher at his Methodist church and possessed of an angelic voice. He is generous with both his time and with what small trinkets he can afford to buy on his meager salary. As an assistant funeral director at the local funeral home, he is considered one of the best at what he does in the Lone Star state – taking the corpse of the deceased and making it presentable for the funeral. He is known for being sweet and comforting to widows and checking up on them after the funeral service.

One such is Marjorie Nugent (MacLaine), the widow of a wealthy oil man. She is not the most well-liked person in town – in fact, she’s pretty much despised. She’s cold, rude and mean, sometimes just for the sake of being mean. At first, she refuses Bernie’s friendship like you’d refuse a door-to-door rap CD salesman. However, as he is persistent and genuinely sweet she relents. Soon the two of them are inseparable.

They go traveling together, first class, all on Marjorie’s dime. Bernie takes her to the theater, classical music performances, art openings and other cultural events. Marjorie sees the popularity that her new friend enjoys and may well be intrigued by the sensation of being liked whereas Bernie gets to experience what money can do for a lifestyle.

Sadly, Marjorie has a jealous streak and she wants Bernie’s attention literally 24-7, and her cold, mean nature starts leading her to assigning him humiliating things to do, while constantly belittling him and berating him if he is not waiting on her hand and foot. Bernie begins to feel trapped as he has resigned his position at the funeral home to become Marjorie’s assistant and business manager with access to her funds, aggravating her obsequious stockbroker (Robichaux) and making Marjorie’s estranged family, who she has already written out of her will in favor of leaving it all to Bernie, suspicious.

As the story continues to unfold, you may find yourself shaking your head. However, this is pretty much as things actually happened, although the family of Marjorie Nugent is adamant that she is not nearly as nasty as she is portrayed here. However, the other events unfolded pretty much as you see them here, although there are some differences – for one thing, the county district attorney in no way resembles Matthew McConaughey who plays him here.

I’m being deliberately vague about the details of what happened because the movie is much more effective if you don’t know in advance (although the story has aired on a variety of news programs both on basic cable and on the networks). Knowing what’s to come robs you of the shock value of what happens because you literally don’t see it coming.

One of the things I love about the movie is the way the story is told, which is pretty much through anecdotes from actual townspeople of Carthage who knew the players quite well, as well as a handful of actors who play townspeople (one of whom is McConaughey’s actual mother – he was raised in the area nearby). They talk about the characters with (in the case of Bernie) genuine affection or (in the case of Marjorie) genuine loathing, peppered with quite a bit of humor – one curmudgeonly sort refers to a neighboring town as being full of rednecks “with more tattoos than teeth.” I wish I’d thought of that.

One of the big attractions here is Black. Often he tends to do over-the-top smarmy kinds of guys. There is a little bit of the used car salesman to Bernie, but this is a very complicated role. He’s effeminate (the real-life Tiete is gay) to the point that his sexuality is questioned, although in the East Texas Bible Belt the general feeling is “Naw! Can’t be…this is Texas!” He’s also a little bit compulsive, and maybe not all that forthcoming about the demons inside him.

MacLaine is a grand dame of the silver screen, and although she rarely makes appearances, she really inhabits the role. Joe Rhodes, a freelance writer in Los Angeles who happens to be the nephew of the real Marjorie Nugent, pronounced that MacLaine’s pinched, disapproving expression was a dead ringer for his aunt’s. Even if Black weren’t in this movie, it would be worth seeing just to see a legend at work.

Keep in mind that this is Bernie’s story – the title of the film is a dead giveaway – so Marjorie’s perspective is barely acknowledged. Why she acted the way she did, what drove her – nary a thought in that direction. I would have liked to see a more even point of view, one less Bernie-centric. Also, Carthage is portrayed as being completely behind Bernie – contemporary accounts say that the town was pretty evenly divided in its approval of him. However, that so many thought of him as a near-saint – and that if any wrong-doing was done, Marjorie had it coming – which is incredible when you think about it. Then again, truth is stranger than fiction.

REASONS TO GO: Black gives an Oscar-caliber performance. Love the anecdotal way the story is told. Wickedly funny in places with a homespun humor.

REASONS TO STAY: Hard to forget that you’re rooting for a guy who did some awful things. Doesn’t really present Marjorie’s point of view other than to show her as entirely despicable.

FAMILY VALUES: There are images of violence, some gruesome mortuary training sequences and some bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Hawthorn Funeral Home, where Bernie Tiede worked and where he and Marjorie Nugent met, refused to allow its name used in the film nor its image due to the family that owned it feeling uncomfortable with the film having so many comedic elements when at the core it’s about the murder of a real person.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/21/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100. The reviews are strongly positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Alpha Dog

MORTICIAN LOVERS: The film opens with Bernie training a group of students in the art of preparing a body for a funeral.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Kill Bill Vol. 1

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