God loves everyone. Even murderers of 81-year-old grannies. Yes, even them.
Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) is a well-liked, somewhat effeminate, small town assistant-funeral director from rural eastern Texas who first befriended and some years later murder a wealthy but highly-disliked widow named Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacClaine). It sound simple and understandable, however, Bernie is probably the most loved man in town and some people find it really all that hard that he killed a woman in such cold blood. This is where Texas State’s Attorney Danny Buck (Michael McConaughey) comes in to set the record straight, once and for all.
That synopsis sounds like a pretty straight-forward, understandable thriller, but what makes it so different from others is the fact that it is all real, all took place, and pretty much, all features the real-life people involved. I mean with a compelling story like this, you could have easily wrote it down as a documentary, or television special that features candid interviews with people who knew the subjects, people who are interested by what’s happening, and the actual subjects, themselves. It would have been a pretty interesting documentary that I probably would have checked-out some time down the road, but writer/director Richard Linklater takes it one-step further by not only going along with the whole documentary look-and-feel, but also making it a very, glitzy dramatization of it as well, offering us both sides of the coin and to see what may, or may not have actually happened.
Being that this is half-documentary, half-dramatizations, there’s a lot more to interest the hell out of you and make you feel as if everything you are seeing, is in-fact, exactly how it went done. The reason for that being, is the fact that Linklater offers a whole bunch of candid interviews with these townspeople who either heard of the subjects, met them once in life, had them over for Thanksgiving dinner, played ball with them, had their funeral-service by them, or just plain and simply knew them for all that they were. This aspect of the movie is so cool to see since every person they get to actually talk in this movie, are pretty funny to listen to and use colloquialisms as if Linklater was standing there with a $5 bill, holding it in-front of their noses, waiting till they use some witty-line in order to gain the moolah. They’re all very funny, very entertaining to watch, but most of all, very insightful as you feel like you’re getting the real story from real people that know what type of shit they’re talking about.
However, the other aspect of this movie, the dramatizations, aren’t that shabby either as they are just as interesting as the actual-interviews themselves. Without these dramatizations, the movie would have been pretty damn depressing if you ask me, but they keep the story going to where you understand the characters, understand the setting, and understand exactly what we’re getting ourselves into with the situation and it actually offers up some funky ideas about life, being human, and the way the people work, that I really wasn’t expecting for it to hit.
For instance, most of you probably already know by now that Bernie does in-fact end-up killing this old lady because he’s practically tortured by her and all that she makes him do, without any real kindness involved whatsoever. Even though he does eventually get pinched for it and confesses to the crime, people still feel as if he shouldn’t be put away, despite being a known, cold-blooded killer. Yes, Bernie killed this old lady, Marjorie, but you also can’t seem to blame him all that much either. Yeah, the guy may have want a bit overboard by killing some old lady no matter how mean she was to him and as well all know, killing never solves anything, but he’s not a bad guy, doesn’t seem to have a bad bone in his body, and most importantly, doesn’t even seem like he has any rhyme or reason to ever, ever kill again. He’s a just simple guy that ‘effed-up big-time and for all I’m concerned, I actually feel like the guy deserved a second-chance, even though other cases like these ones I would have probably shooed away instantly. You start to think what’s justifiable and what’s not, and it’s just pretty interesting to see how this film makes you think, a lot more than you expected to and it’s something that Linklater does best whenever he’s telling a story, whether it be real or fictional.
Where I think Linklater runs into a big-problem with this story is, is the fact that we can never really take it too seriously, to the point of where we feel an emotional-connection to the story. The only really serious bone in this movie, comes-out probably twice and both actually concern Bernie himself, coming to terms with the fact that he’s doing something terribly, terribly wrong. Murder is a subject in a movie that has been done to a very dark, comedic-effect before, but it just feels off here and you can never really take anything this movie deals with, as seriously as most of the real-life people in this movie actually do. It’s never funny, but it’s always interesting, and as great as that was to see on-screen, I still wished there was more of an understandable and reasonable approach to a story that could have meant more.
But the person who really makes up for all of those problems in terms of tone and pacing, is the one, the only, everybody’s most-hated actor, Jack Black. Yes, Jack Black does in-fact star in this movie as Bernie Tiede and even though most of you now probably saw the poster, read the synopsis and saw that J.B’s name was attached to it, you most likely already wrote it off as a piece of crap that doesn’t need to be seen, especially since the guy will probably sing and dance like a buffoon. In case you were wondering, yes, Black does sing, he does dance, and he does do everything else that you know and (mostly) hate him for, but it’s a lot different this time around with Bernie. See, since Bernie is such a nice, calm, and peaceful fellow, Black plays-up the whole “wholesome” angle to this guy that made the real-life person so beloved and cared-for in the first place. He acts like the nicest guy in the room, and 9 times out of 10, usually is. You can’t help but fall in love with this Bernie guy, almost as much and almost as quick as the actual townspeople themselves, and most of that is all thanks to Black and how even though he doesn’t change a single-lick about his act, appearance or demeanor, still is fun to watch and keeps the story moving just when you think it may, just may run out of steam.
Just like Black here, Matthew McConaughey and Shirley MacLaine both play, real-life people and although they don’t steal the show quite like Black, they still do alright jobs with what they’re given. McConaughey is fun to watch as the show-boating, hammy district attorney that just wants more recognition to his name, rather than actual pride and respect; and Shirley MacLaine is alright as the mean, old, and nasty granny that is Marjorie, but isn’t someone we really care about, think about, or remember once she’s all gone from the story. As for the actual-townspeople themselves, most of them play them actual selves in the dramatizations, but also some actors and actresses play in their roles as well and it’s sort of annoying because it makes you question just how much of this is really as legitimate as it may propose. The interviews with the real-life people were good, but once I started to find-out that more and more of these interviews were scripted with actors in the roles, I was a bit skeptical as to what I was just forced-down my throat and whether or not it was the truth, or just plain and simple, liberties that all filmmakers take with any story to spice it up. I’m feeling a bit of the latter part, myself.
Consensus: Being based on an actual, cooky story is what helps Bernie in being a compelling and interesting take on a story none of us had ever, ever heard about before, yet, you still never really know what exactly happened and if it was all for real, or just a bunch of scenes added for dramatic-effect. Hmmm, only few and few people actually know that and I’m mostly looking at you, Linklater.