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Bernie - Jack Black with Shirley MacLaine
Bernie - Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) has a suspicious friendship with nasty rich widow Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) © 2011 Millennium Entertainment

Jack Black shines as an effeminate East Texas mortician who cultivates a questionable relationship with an extremely unlovable old biddy in this quirky comedy from director/co-writer Richard Linklater (School of Rock, Dazed and Confused). The breezy, documentary-style film is based on the true story of Bernie Tiede, an out of towner who became so beloved in his adopted Carthage that townsfolk were willing to let him literally get away with murder.

Black shows off his vocal chops in scenes featuring church hymns and a number from an amateur theatrical production of The Music Man, songs that are a far cry from his usual output as frantic frontman for the rock-parody duo Tenacious D. The selections are as unexpected as the irony-free restraint of Black’s performances, which are delivered without so much as a wink.

That’s because Bernie is either the most sincerely guileless innocent the town ever has seen, or the world’s most unflappably convincing deep-character con man. Viewers will have to decide for themselves which is the case, because the film never reveals exactly what’s going on inside Bernie’s head. Does he honestly care about the happiness and well-being of reclusive widow Marjorie Nugent (a perfectly prickly Shirley MacLaine), who is described by one succinct citizen as “a mean old hateful bitch?” Or is Bernie only interested in remaining her pampered first-class traveling companion, with an eye on getting control of her fortune?

Bernie - Matthew McConaughey
District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey) puts the well-liked Bernie Tiede on trial for murder © 2011 Millennium Entertainment

MacLaine is good at showing Marjorie’s transition from suspicious to smitten to insufferably strident. Initially won over by Bernie’s attentions, she soon begins taking advantage of his good nature and treating him like a servant. Complacent and soft-spoken Bernie tries putting up with her dictatorial demands, but even the nicest guy in town has a breaking point.

The movie devotes almost as much screen time to numerous first-person talking-head accounts (some from actual Carthage residents) as it does to the story itself. Those unvarnished comments from Bernie’s friends and neighbors are priceless. One straight-shooter’s description of the five types of Texans (which include Dallas snobs and the hairy-legged women of the People’s Republic of Austin) is hilarious. Many interviewees admit being befuddled by Bernie’s apparently genuine friendship with the universally despised Marjorie. And as for Bernie’s ambiguous sexuality, someone points out that “our lord and savior” also wore sandals, never married and hung around with 12 men, but nobody thought he was gay.

The movie goes from country-fried feel-good to tongue-in-cheek felonious when Bernie, fed up with Marjorie’s psychotically possessive neediness, impulsively shoots her dead. In a Coen-brothers-worthy twist, his crime is not discovered for several months, during which Bernie maintains the fiction that Marjorie is merely incommunicado. Slickly self-promoting District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey) eventually faces the difficult task of prosecuting Bernie in a town where people hope they are chosen for jury duty so they can set him free.

The screenplay was co-written by Skip Hollandsworth, whose article in Texas Monthly magazine about the real Bernie Tiede inspired Linklater to make the film. Everyone who sees this likably odd movie about a likably odd man will be very glad that Linklater happened to pick up that particular issue.

[Rating: 3.5 stars]

Bernie is released in theatres in US and Canada on Friday April 27, 2012.