Bernie is first of all the story of a murderer but also it is the story of a man who robbed from the rich to give to the poor. In Richard Linklater’s film, Bernie is played by a cuddly, effeminate Jack Black in a role that requires him to do some rare emoting rather than just singing, dancing and acting the fool.
Bernie is based on a true story and Linklater structures it with talking heads from the Texan townsfolk, some real, and some actors and spins a yarn of a soft man bitten once too many times by a hardened old crone (Shirley MacLaine) and eventually driven to killing her.
Marge Nugent and Bernie are inseparable after the pair meet at the funeral of Marge’s extremely wealthy husband. As the local mortician, Bernie is loved by all the townspeople and particularly the little old ladies who he dotes on, especially after their partners pass on. Bernie could be a sinister character but not in the hands of Linklater and Black. Instead he is a simple man; a good Christian, loving friend, caring community member and harmless helper to Marge. And possibly gay the film also suggests for good measure.
Marge on the other hand is a miserable old miser; wealthy but estranged from her family and the townspeople and with only Bernie for company, she finds him an easy target for manipulation. The pair go on fancy first class holidays together and Bernie becomes her slave as the domineering old woman becomes too much for even this soft-hearted big old teddy bear of a man to take.
So eventually Bernie does the unthinkable and if Linklater’s film was not a true story, it would be beyond belief. Bernie hides his dastardly act from those around him through a number of nefarious means and the true story takes a turn for the even more surreal as Bernie goes to court but the ordinary townsfolk rally around him.
The real life Bernie is a far more interesting enigma than what is presented here. Linklater makes him a saint, spending Marge’s money on making the community better and helping the church, the children and the local businesses. He takes little for himself, in effect robbing the rich Marge and sharing the wealth amongst the poorer struggling townsfolk.
Bernie is portrayed almost as a modern day Robin Hood, Jack Black giving a wonderful performance as the sweetheart at the centre of a scandal, miles away from anything he has done before. If the real Bernie did distribute the wealth so selflessly from the greedy old hag to the people of the town, then the world really does need more Bernies right now. He may be a murderer but the greed of some of the richest people in this world could be seen as far more destructive then killing one selfish old bag for her cash.
However Linklater’s film could have done with exploring the darker side of the character a little more. There had to be more ambiguity to investigate rather than painting MacLaine’s Marge and Matthew McConaughey’s DA Danny Buck as the straightforward villains and Bernie as such a simple, smooth and saintly sinner.
Bernie is pretty light on laughs and takes its time getting going but is worth catching for an interesting Jack Black performance and a tantalisingly twisted true life story.
Check out the trailer below and read this article by the real Marge's nephew if you want to know how truthful the film is: