This quirky east Texas murder mystery screens more like a documentary than a true-to-form comedy. Reenactments of events are interspersed with interviews from townspeople – all of whom are actually from around Carthage, the town in which the film is set. The one exception is Kay McConaughey, Matthew’s mom. She’s absolutely hysterical and one of my favorite parts of the film.
Bernie follows Bernie Tiede, the town’s assistant funeral director played by Jack Black, as he befriends a wealthy but ridiculously cantankerous widow, Mrs. Nugent (MacLaine). As the film and their relationship progress, Bernie feels increasingly taken advantage of and mistreated by Mrs. Nugent, which eventually escalates to Bernie shooting her multiple times. Throughout the film, townspeople are interviewed to describe Bernie, Mrs. Nugent, their relationship, and also the District Attorney, Danny Buck Davidson (McConaughey). Despite how absolutely insane and random this plot is, it’s actually a true story, made famous by Skip Hollandsworth (also a screenwriter for the film) in a Texas Monthly article.
Jack Black’s performance as an effeminate funeral director with a startlingly good singing voice is definitely the highlight of the film. Black shows off his vocal abilities with classic renditions of hymns that reek of gospel tradition. McConaughey’s performance as the self-assured small town D.A. isn’t remarkable, though he is capable of pulling off the distinct east Texas accent well. Shirley MacLain’s interpretation of a surly oil widow is none-too-surprising, and she manages to dance a fine line of being just right and over-the-top.
Bernie is a film that people from the South will appreciate and understand best; however, any one with a basic understanding of small town life will enjoy it. The comedy is dark and manages to avoid the obvious funeral director gags, hinging primarily on situational humor with some very entertaining descriptions and comments from the cast, particularly the interviewed townspeople.