On a November day in 1996, the most esteemed resident of Carthage, Texas, undertaker Bernie Tiede, shot and killed its least loved local, Marjorie Nugent. She was 81, widowed and rich (oil money), he was half her age, gay but discreetly so and without Marjorie’s money, would have had only the $18,000 annual salary of an assistant funeral director. Their unlikely friendship—and its real-life deadly demise—is dramatized in Richard Linklater’s loving ode to Texas eccentricity, Bernie, which features Jack Black as Bernie and Shirley MacLaine as the widow Nugent.
Linklater, whose big box office hit, School of Rock, also featured Black, optioned a magazine story about the case that appeared in Texas Monthly in 1998 and he and its author, journalist Skip Hollandsworth, have been chipped away at a screenplay together ever since. You would be hard pressed to find a film that feels more true to a reporter’s experience of an event. This isn’t necessarily a good thing, at least not cinematically. A reporter who comes in after an event collects facts, recollections, scraps of dialogue and description, then builds a narrative from that magpie’s mess that he or she hopes is both lively and credible. Hollandsworth’s original piece is first rate (read it here). The movie translation is playful and cunning but never escapes the reportorial trap; observation after the fact rarely matches the energy of experience.
(READ: Joel Stein’s interview with director Richard Linklater)
To a great extent, Linklater and Hollandsworth turn the telling of the tale—talking head/documentary style—over to Carthage residents, employing non-professionals from the East Texas town to say many of the same things the townsfolk said to Hollandsworth more than a decade ago. From the movie’s earliest scenes, the deed is already done, Bernie’s in custody, Marjorie is dead and so is the drama. From perches on porches and tables in diners, the Carthaginians rehash their memories of Bernie the devoted churchgoer, sweetie pie and do-gooder and Marjorie the miserable meanie, introducing flashbacks with Black and MacLaine. (In one such “interview,” a woman in sequins, whose face is as dimpled and squashed as a potato, laughs heartily at everything her skinny, smoking friend says; they’re highly entertaining postcards from America.)
With the exception of the local district attorney, Danny Buck (Linklater stalwart Matthew McConaughey), they’re all on Bernie’s side. In Carthage, Bernie’s natural instinct to be kind to Marjorie, played out for a half dozen years, was considered more mysterious than his sudden impulse to pop her with the armadillo gun and stuff her into a freezer.
(BROWSE: Shirley MacLaine’s appearances on the cover of Time)
The movie is rooting for Bernie, too. (Note: it’s not called Bernie and Marjorie.) There are a few moments, early on, when you might expect Bernie to break character, to rub his hands together in glee over the prospect of getting his mitts on Marjorie’s money. He did spend lots of it (the movie claims around $600,000 on various good deeds in the nine months between her death and the discovery of her frozen remains). Bernie is described as “a genius at sales” and Linklater shows him talking a cheapskate into a fancy coffin, but he doesn’t ever seem to be selling himself. He comes off as the nicest guy in the world, one step away from that nice Panda Black keeps playing, while MacLaine’s Marjorie is Aurora Greenway without a single term of endearment. By the time Bernie cracks, she’s practically holding him prisoner, making him work as her manservant, and you’re wishing she’d just die of natural causes, like Doris Duke, leaving the butler with appropriate restitution for the hardship of putting up with her.
Actually, to say wishing is to overstate the emotional engagement viewers will have with the film. The talking heads, as charming and funny as they are, tend to keep us at arm’s length. Instead of exploring something bigger, like the origins of Bernie’s need for the company of elderly ladies (which Hollandsworth touched on in Texas Monthly; Tiede lost his mother at age 3 and his father at 15), Linklater limits the story and mood to black comedy. The big problem with playing this same note over and over again is that while the pairing of a 81-year-old harridan and the 39-year-old effeminate mensch, whether off on a cruise together or dining at the local taqueria, may sound funny, it’s mostly just sad.