By Eleanor Ringel Cater.
“Bernie” is absolutely the best show in town.
As my pal Spring A. said, I envy you the opportunity to see it for the first time,
Try to ignore the just-lays-there title. And please —on pain of ruining your own movie-going experience — do not read any review that tells you the entire plot.
All you need to know is this: it is based on a true story, and it is hilarious.
Channeling the mixed spirits of Jack Nicholson and Bill Murray, Jack Black gives the best performance of his career. It’s as if he’s finally woken up from the slumber of such clumsy, crudball efforts like “Gulliver’s Travels” and “Be Kind Rewind.”
As assistant mortician Bernie Tiede, his work is as clever, daring and, yes, dazzlingly detailed as that of any of the best pudgy comic actors in movie history.
He gets a mighty assist from director Richard Linklater (“Before Sunrise,” “Slacker”) and a town-full of camera-ready non-pros who understand the lovable lunacy of south by southwest humor.
In “Bernie,” it really does take a village.
A village called Carthage that’s situated behind the
“pine curtain of East Texas” as our narrator tells us — with a telling deadpan that sets the tone for the rest of the picture.
Bernie Tiede really was one of the best-loved people in Carthage. He went the extra mile, so to speak — painstakingly primping their passed loved ones, lending his pleasant voice to leading the hymns at the service, bringing comfort and chocolates to various widows.
Everyone in town adores Bernie. Everyone, that is, except one ornery widow named Marjorie (a prune-faced Shirley MacLaine in a performance worthy of a best supporting actress nomination).
Already considered the feistiest, most tight-fisted woman in Carthage, Marjorie spurns Bernie’s chocolates, his flowers, even his sincere condolences. But Bernie is nothing if not determined to bring comfort. One day she opens her door, motions him in and a love match is struck.
Okay, more like the love match in “Sunset Boulevard” than “Romeo and Juliet.” Still, Bernie becomes her confidant, her traveling companion, her house manager. In short, he becomes her everything. And that has unexpected consequences.
Linklater, who basically jump-started Black’s movie career with “The School of Rock,” is a Texan. His co-writer, Skip Hollandsworth, has lived in Texas since he was 11 and is the executive editor of Texas Monthly (he also wrote the article on which “Bernie’s” true-life story is based).
They treat this Texas tall-tale with affection, not condescension. And while they may have written the words for the Carthage natives to say, they never confuse local with yokel. Everyone is essentially in on the movie’s central joke and, as such, they form a kind of bar-b-q’d Greek chorus. It’s as if Werner Herzog had made a movie of the old comic strip, “L’il Abner.”
I’m not sure what’s funnier — MacLaine chewing her Tex-Mex lunch methodically over and over and over for what seems like hours, just to drive Bernie nuts, or Black performing “76 Trombones” as Harold Hill in the town’s amateur production of “The Music Man.”
And don’t let me leave out Matthew McConaughey, another Linklater find (“Dazed and Confused”) and fellow Texan, who discovers his inner full-of-himself hick as the local D.A.
The Coen brothers at their very best could’ve made this movie. I’ll bet they wish they had.