[This review was originally published for our South by Southwest Film 2012 coverage. It is being re-posted to coincide with the film's wide release. ]
Everybody knows that Jack Black is known for a specific type of character that he plays, creating a huge distinction between fans and detractors. In Richard Linklater's Bernie, he dials it back, but is it enough to sway the Jack Black haters? Beyond that, is it enough to even retain those that actually like Jack Black's particular flavor of comedy?
Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) is a popular, well-liked mortician (or "assistant funeral director," as he wants to point out) in the small town of Carthage, TX, becoming a huge part of the community by taking part at the church, in community plays, school musicals, etc. After he handles the funeral of a Mr. Nugent, Bernie begins a friendship with the widowed Mrs. Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), who is known to be very stingy and cold to everybody, neighbors and family alike. However, Bernie's positive disposition is enough to break through her cold demeanor as the two quickly become close, resulting in Bernie becoming both her "travel companion" and financial advisor. However, Mrs. Nugent begins to treat Bernie like crap, culminating in a twist that ends with the Dallas district attorney, Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey) to investigate the secret surrounding Bernie.
The film is presented as a traditional narrative with documentary segments mixed in with Carthage residents and Davidson commenting on Bernie, his relationship with Mrs. Nugent, and other gossipy elements. Billed as a comedy, there weren't many laughs to be found in the film. Actually... there weren't any at all. Funny enough, this wasn't because of Jack Black, but of the script itself.
Linklater co-wrote the screenplay with Skip Hollandsworth, which was based on a true story that Hollandsworth wrote a magazine article on in 1998. Because of this, the characters aren't made to be caricatures of the real people they're based on. However, I think allowing the cast to exaggerate would have made for a much more interesting film. Instead, the entire film is held back to depict the events as accurately as possible (beyond the typical "movie" sheen), despite the multitude of opportunities for comedic gold. Seriously, is it possible to drop the ball with a film that has Jack Black in a relationship with an 80-year-old widow?!
Black dials back the typical character he plays to portray Bernie properly, but it's just not funny. Sure, he has a face that was destined to be laughed at, but there's nothing funny about his character. What does exist, however, is how empathetic the audience will be of him. He's an honest-to-god likable character, perhaps even being TOO nice. MacLaine serves as the perfect contrast to Black, as Mrs. Nugent is manipulative and controlling. While McConaughey's character plays a larger role in the last quarter of the film or so,
Bernie had the makings of a solid comedy with its cast and source material, but it didn't allow itself to tap into that potential. Despite being billed as a "dark comedy," it's a light film with dark elements lacking any true comedy. The film wasn't that interesting until I found out that it was actually based on a true story, which made me re-think just how absurd and outrageous the real-life Bernie Tiede actually was. I think this is what inspired Linklater to make the film; however, it simply wasn't enough to make Bernie a good film.
Allistair Pinsof: There are very few Linklater films I don't like. Bernie, unfortunately, makes this short list a little bit longer. This simple story about a simple killing by a simple man in a simple town is just a bit too, well, simple! Linklater has a knack for telling a story smoothly, as he did with School of Rock and the underrated Me and Orson Welles, which makes him such a valuable director to Hollywood as well as indies. The problem with Bernie is that the story isn't a very interesting one and the way it is told only makes it more dull. I'm not a fan of fake interviews in non-documentaries, so I already have a lot against the way Bernie is structured. Even more damaging is that you know the entire story before it even finishes. It's as if Linklater thought this was a great moment in history that audiences would be happy to just see on the big screen, never mind conflict or drama. And, the little conflict and drama there is, is weakened by a lackluster performance from Jack Black -- he does comedy well but not drama. -- 42, subpar.