The poster gets it right. It says “A story so unbelievable it must be true”.
And it is. Only not quite the way it is told in this film from the brilliant Richard Linklater.
Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) moves to the small town and takes a job as assistant funeral director at the local funeral home and he is a hit from the moment he arrives. He’s perfect at serving his clients, helping them through those difficult moments while ensuring that the funerals he conducts run smoothly. He sings at the funerals, and in the local church, and does it well. He gets involved with the local arts scene, directing and staging plays and even acting in some of them. He is a Godsend to the widows whose husbands he prepared for burial, stopping by to see them afterwards, bringing gifts.
Everyone loves Bernie.
Except of course for Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), who hasn’t met him yet. She doesn’t love anyone. Not her son, the doctor, who lives over in Midland and never visits or calls. Not her grandchildren, who sued her once to try to get hold of some of her money. The only person she appears to love in any measure is her husband and he’s just died.
Naturally, Bernie preps him for the afterlife, conducts the funeral and soon after, stops by to give something to Mrs. Nugent. She slams the door in his face on the first visit, but when he returns bearing yet more gifts, he’s invited inside, much to his surprise.
Soon he’s accompanying her to a Van Cliburn piano competition and not long afterward, he’s become her constant companion. She sits adoringly in the audience at rehearsals of the plays he is involved with, she takes him out to meals and enjoys his company and soon he is her constant companion. Then she gets rid of almost all of her employees, replacing them with him, and he cuts down his work at the funeral home to just part-time. He’s much too busy serving every single one of Marjorie’s needs and this woman is one needy woman.
They travel. First class, naturally, to New York City, Belize and other jet-set destinations. All on her dime. They go to spas and share couple’s massages, although there is never any untoward touching. After all, Bernie hasn’t show any interest in women his own age and everyone finds him a bit “effeminate,” although the question of his sexuality hasn’t come up, yet.
But, soon, the ’honeymoon’ is over and Bernie is going nuts dealing with her possessiveness, jealousy and the insistent demands she is constantly making on him. The more he tries to have a life away from her, the more she tightens her grip on him. Finally, he can take no more and snaps. Suddenly everything is just hunky-dory again, with Bernie’s generousity larger than ever, and his old activities are all back on.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Nugent has “suffered a stroke” and is being treated in a nursing home in another town.
Only her stockbroker doesn’t buy it. He is persistent and finally, nine months later, it is discovered that Mrs. Nugent was shot four times and stuffed into the freezer in her garage. Bernie is the only suspect and as soon as he can be located, he will be arrested and charged with the murder. Local DA Danny “Buck” Davidson” (Matthew McConaughey) is out to nail Bernie, no matter how the town feels about him.
There’s a trial and everything up to, including, and after the trial in this film is funny. Black is perfect as “Bernie” who may be seen as ’light in his loafers’ by the residents of this small town in Texas; but that doesn’t stop them from loving him. He sings well, dances adequately, and acts up a storm, bringing to life the angst the real-life Bernie must have felt when he took that rifle into his hands. MacLaine doesn’t have a lot to do, but what she does get to do, she does perfectly. McConaughey is a great choice as the “good ole boy” attorney out to ensure that this criminal gets what is coming to him.
Linklater is most effective in his use of the “townfolk” of Carthage, who don’t want to see Bernie punished, yet have strong opinions on everything and aren’t afraid to express them.
This one is a winner.