Jack Black has two fan bases.
One owns every Tenacious D album, watches “High Fidelity” or “Be Kind Rewind” every time they're on TV, and thinks “Brütal Legend” was one of the most underrated video games of the 2000s. The other likes to see movies where fat guys yell stuff and get hurt, and Jack occasionally obliges these people for a paycheck.
Luckily, “Bernie” was made for the former, not the latter. That is not to say that the low-budget, independent dark comedy released on home video last year is anything like his other work, but it requires viewers to see him as more than just a walking (or falling) flatulence gag. Modern slapstick can be fun, but making real life funny, or making a well-known funnyman serious, takes talent. This movie, which I finally caught streaming on Netflix, is full of it.
“Bernie” is based on an article written for “Texas Monthly” about Bernie Tiede, a kind mortician who befriends Marjorie Nugent, his polar opposite in almost every way imaginable. While Bernie is caring, thoughtful, and well-liked by the community, not even her own family can stand Marjorie, a rich, elderly widow who seems to go out of her way to be miserable. Bernie is the only one in the small town of Carthage who can see any good in the old bat, but when she wears his patience down through consistent verbal abuse, he uncharacteristically shoots her in the back and stores her body in a freezer. And that's not even the strange part.
When District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson charges him with first degree murder, the town turns against the arrogant lawman, unable to believe that the church-going, musical-loving undertaker could do such a thing – and even if he did, most of them simply don't blame him for snapping. Davidson is forced to move the trial to a different town to avoid a biased jury, a request usually reserved for cases where the defendant is guilty until proven innocent in the minds of the people. Even Bernie's confession doesn't seem to sway many from insisting on his innocence.
It may seem like I've riddled this article with spoilers, but all of this can be found on the back of the box. There are many layers to this film expertly laid out by screenwriter/director Richard Linklater, famous for comedies like “Slacker” and “Dazed and Confused” as well as groundbreaking animated films like “Waking Life” and “A Scanner Darkly.” He worked with Black before on “School of Rock,” but this role allowed the comedian to transcend his media persona and dive deeply into the mysterious Mr. Tiede, even meeting him in person to gain insight into the life he would portray on screen.
A bachelor in his late '30s, it's easy to see Bernie as a compassionate but lonely man looking for companionship, but, as prosecutors pointed out, he also freely spent a lot of Mrs. Nugent's money. They went on lavish vacations around the world together, and after her death, he continued to spend away, though most of it went to charity and other good causes while he remained in his humble little home, behind on his bills. He's a two-faced walking contraction who's nearly impossible to read, and Jack plays him so cunningly that you're in the same boat as the people of Carthage, unable to decide whether you should love him or hate him.
Linklater knows this and adds to it by including footage of interviews with real citizens who knew the actual players in this real-life drama, interspersing them with the fictional performances. Shirley MacLaine is a riot as the crotchety Marjorie, and Matthew McConaughey is practically unrecognizable as he kills it as Danny Buck, but seeing Texans act like Texans may be the funniest part of the whole movie – who better to capture the absurdity of the situation than those who lived (and exacerbated) it?
Black inspires some laughs, too, but he confuses and disturbs much more often in “Bernie,” and that's what makes this hidden gem worth hunting down. Just as he dupes the town into believing that Mrs. Nugent is sick and can't come to the door, he fools an audience who knows him for “Nacho Libre” and “Kung Fu Panda” into believing he's a mustachioed servant of God with expensive taste and a penchant for the stage. He is absorbed into this odd man's life, and I realized that I just didn't know Jack until now.
What's sad is that more people probably saw “Gulliver's Travels” or “Year One” than this clever, well-made indie flick because Hollywood isn't ready to take the same risks that these actors and filmmakers were. People love a good true story, though, and truth is often stranger than fiction, so why not challenge the status quo with something that doesn't have to try so hard to be funny? Because it's easier to play to expectations.
As one of the best reviewed comedies of 2012, “Bernie” will both charm and surprise you, not unlike its enigmatic subject. If not, I hear there are plenty of poop jokes in “Envy” – you've got to play to both sides, after all.
-Rich Howells is a lifelong Marvel Comics collector, wannabe Jedi master, and cult film fan. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.