Music Feature

Film Review: Bernie

by Piers Marchant
Undertaker, heal thyself.

Dir. Richard Linklater
Score: 5.6

Bernie Tiede is a short, squat man with a bushy mustache, a slightly fey manner, and a propensity to wear his slacks high above his waist. But he's also blessed with a beatific smile, an optimistic outlook and a way with people that tends to make them want to overlook the fact that he killed a rich, elderly widow by shooting her in the back four times with a hunting rifle.

As played by Jack Black, the real-life Tiede, a Texas-based mortician, is also charming, good-natured and endlessly giving of his time and resources to other people. The rich widow in question, Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), takes a shine to Bernie after he repeatedly checks in on her after her husband's funeral, a practice we are told by his former boss, Don Leggett (Rick Dial), Tiede maintained with all the recently bereaved. To Tiede's endlessly good-nature, Nugent was reputedly mean, cruel, jealous and extremely possessive of him, a situation that, over the years, worsened to the point where Tiede picked up the rifle and shot her without even quite realizing what he was doing. The resulting trial -- taking place in another county altogether because the lead prosecutor, Danny Buck (Matthew McConaughey), feared he could never get a conviction in Tiede's hometown of Carthage, where he was universally adored -- made many different kinds of Texas headlines. Tiede confessed to the crime readily, but Buck, pushing for a first-degree murder conviction, had to push the situation to prove there was premeditation involved. To that end, it didn't help Tiede's case that he had been made the sole beneficiary of Madame Nugent's considerable estate.

It's clear that director Richard Linklater, who we surmise is endlessly fascinated by the shaggy goings-on of his home state, has taken a shine to the story and Bernie as a character in particular. And he pulls a tremendous performance from Black, whose recent cinematic foray as a farting, buffoonish kid-friendly leading man in the execrable fare such as Gulliver's Travels had lead this critic to write him off entirely. Affable, friendly and genuinely caring, Black portrays Tiede as the rarest of men, one whose true nature is genial. But none of this, nor seeing the dynamic McConaughey back in the courtroom saddle where he rightfully belongs, raises the film much beyond amusing anecdote, something you might talk about at an outdoor Texas dinner party with the grill firing up 18 oz. steaks and the night sky lit by glowing refinery lights.

Despite the fact that Bernie is still alive -- and, based on the closing credit sequence, actually consulted with Black about his performance -- we get no more insight into the nature of the crime or what forces lead Tiede to his mental break than the rest of the townspeople, interviewed exhaustively and intercut with the dramatized action of the actors, might have known from reading the lead story in the local paper. It's an odd hybrid of docudrama, part black comedy (if not a Black comedy), part true crime story, but never aspiring to transcend the basic outline of its source material.

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