If anyone had told me that a movie starring Jack Black, Matthew McConaughey, and Shirley MacLaine would be a delightful surprise, I would have laughed. But, sure enough, the dark comedy Bernie, closely based on true events in the small town of Carthage, Texas, provides great characters, quirky humor, and a real sense of local color. Jack Black stars as Bernie, an assistant funeral home director who has won the love and respect of the entire town with his generosity and good nature. Everyone loves Bernie, whether he is singing at a funeral or at church, directing the local theater group, leading the boy scouts, he is always available to help with his cheery and unselfish good will.
So it comes as quite a shock when the town learns that he has murdered his benefactor and long-time companion Marjorie Nugent, a widowed millionarie hated by the entire town. Shirley MacLaine is irascibly perfect as Marjorie, a demanding, lonely, untrusting biddy who becomes dependent on Bernie while he becomes dependent on her wealth. They take cruises together, hit the spas together, go to church with each other for years until she finally demands his full attention and drives him to shoot her in the back in her garage after one last demeaning order.
The film is set up with "witnesses," in the style of movies like When Harry Met Sally. These are real citizens of Carthage, most of whom still love Bernie, despite his crime. The director, Richard Linklater (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset), infuses the film with genuine appreciation for small town relationships, Texas mores, and clever touches. What could have been a scathing satire like Election instead becomes a gentle ribbing of easy targets. We like these people, even Marjorie Nugent. Jack Black gives his best career performance. His character is a gentle, caring man who borders on a gay stereotype but resists that obvious temptation for laughs. Instead, one feels for him, as do the good citizens of Carthage, Texas.