It didn't dawn on me how much I missed Texas until I saw the opening title card of Bernie, telling me what I'm "fixin' to see." Richard Linklater has shrugged off the shackles of period pieces like Me and Orson Welles and the floaty animation of A Scanner Darkly, and gone back to what he does best, which is put small-town Texas up on the big screen. This time, the story is a doozy--and it's true, too.
In Texas, you can gauge the size of the town by how many Dairy Queens there are. Dallas has 10 within just a 10-mile radius of the city center with many more suburbs to go, but Carthage looks like it has one for the whole town. So imagine the horror that a murder of one of its citizens would cause. In this case, the perpetrator is the much-beloved assistant funeral director Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), who normally spent his time consoling the bereaved and singing in the church choir, not killing anyone. The weird part is that he killed Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), a mean old widow that no one but Bernie liked. So what gives?
Linklater's film is an amazing blend of re-creation and documentary, letting the story unfold around spot-on acting by the cast and candid interviews with the actual Carthage residents (and Matthew McConaughey's mom Kay, who is a real firecracker). I mistakenly spent a lot of time up front trying to figure out who was a real person and who was an actor, which I realized was a waste of time because they fit so well together anyway. The producers of Unsolved Mysteries only wish that they could have created something so captivating and seamless.
Jack Black has never been so good. He completely disappears into the character and creates a man that you want to reach out and hug forever, just in the hopes that some of his goodness will rub off on you. As the story gets crazier and Marjorie gets more and more demanding of Bernie's time, even as his cracks start to show, he still oozes compassion. The part of the story that Linklater and co. captures perfectly is the fact that you can clearly see both sides of the equation. Murder is wrong, but he must have had his reasons. This is what leads the townspeople to react the (hilarious) way they do--which drives district attorney Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey) crazy. And we're lucky enough to hear the real people talking about it, just like they do over their beers on the porch. Turns out a trip to the theater just saved me a few hundred bucks in airfare.