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Shirley MacLaine and Jack Black in Richard Linklater's "Bernie."

Amid the Carthaginians


When Bernhardt Tiede II moved to the East Texas town of Carthage in 1985 to put his associate’s degree in mortuary science to work, it was not a given that he was going to fit in. The locals of this small town, which sits on a big pool of oil, were not used to outsiders, looking down on even the city dwellers of Texas urban centers like Houston and Austin.

Yet within a few years of his arrival, Bernie was one of the most popular figures in town. Despite being what the locals were too polite to refer to as more than being “uninterested in women is own age” (or occasionally “light in the loafers”), Bernie made his mark both professionally and personally. His work was faultless: “He made everyone look so beautiful,” recalls one resident. “Too bad you were dead.” And he showed genuine interest and compassion in his neighbors, becoming involved in the church and local arts organizations.

Bernie is currently serving a life sentence in a Texas State Prison. How he got there is the basis of the oddball comedy Bernie, directed by Richard Linklater from a script he co-wrote with reporter Skip Hollandsworth based on his article “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas.”

Their film opens with the onscreen title “What you’re fixin’ to see is a true story,” a phrase that, if you inspect it, doesn’t actually mean anything, just the way the phrase “This is a true story” at the beginning of Fargo didn’t mean what it seemed to. It may well be an intentional reference to the Coen brothers: Linklater certainly borrows a lot of their tone with background moments like the sheriff who turns a gruesome car wreck into a driver’s ed lecture, or the details about how to make a corpse look its best, or the rousing gospel music score.

Bernie is played by Jack Black in a performance that probably works a lot better for people unfamiliar with Jack Black. Unfortunately, that’s not likely to be the bulk of people who come to see this. He’s very good, but our appreciation of the character is bothered by what we have come to expect from Black, who generally plays boisterous ne’er-do-wells. Unlike Jim Carrey in I Love You Phillip Morris (another true-life story about how a gay man wound up in prison), Black isn’t able to adapt his own persona to the role, and it gets in the way instead. When he sings with the church choir or at a public concert, we’re waiting for that strong, pleasant tenor to turn into the mock heavy metal thunder of Tenacious D.

So when Bernie tends to the bereaved widows of Carthage (what his employer at the funeral home calls the DLOLs—“dear little old ladies”), we doubt his sincerity. Surely only a moneygrubbing Max Bialystock acts like this? (Which sets you to thinking that Black, who also dances a bit here, could be the new Nathan Lane, should the current one ever decide to retire.)

I think the film wants us to see Bernie as a character brought down by his own flaws, which combine a generosity of spirit with a pathological need for attention and approval. That comes through more clearly in Hollandsworth’s article than it does in the movie, which works much better as an affectionate portrait of small-town Texas. Linklater, born in Houston and resident of Austin, populates the film with Carthage residents who recall their memories of Bernie. Some of these are actors recreating lines told to Hollandsworth, and the end effect is closer to David Byrne’s True Stories than it is to Warren Beatty’s Reds.

Among the undisputed professionals are Shirley MacLaine, who plays the rich and thoroughly disliked widow who becomes the center of Bernie’s attention, making more of the role than you might expect, and Matthew McConaughey as the DA who has to move Bernie’s trial out of town because no one in Carthage would vote to convict him. I’ve never been a fan of McConaughey’s, but he’s a lot of fun here as a slow-burning peace officer stymied in his job. (He has another good role as a different kind of Texas lawman in William Friedkin’s adaptation of Tracy Letts’s play Killer Joe, which will be released to theaters this summer.)

Watch the trailer for Bernie

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