Here lies a veritable black comedy about the 1996 murder of Marjorie Nugent, an 81-year-old millionaire in Carthage, Texas, by Bernhardt ‘Bernie’ Tiede. This semi-biographical, quasi-mockumentary is a peculiar film which ultimately suffers from narrative rigor mortis.
Jack Black is Bernie, a mortician and beloved member of small-town Carthage. A friendly, if somewhat effeminate man, Bernie decides to undertake (pun intended) the task of befriending local millionaire Marjorie (MacLaine), much to the chagrin of the community who widely consider her to be colder than Bernie’s clientele. A task which proves to be a grave mistake.
Richard Linklater is no stranger to directing dramas founded on true stories, as his previous collaboration with Matthew McConaughey,The Newton Boys, will attest. He supplements this docudrama with interviews from the Texan townspeople, some of whom are playing themselves. The procession of gossip that accompanies is embalmed with subtle humour and truths, giving the sense that you are genuinely eavesdropping, whilst chronicling the events leading up to Bernie’s murder of the wealthy widow. The rest is history. No, really.
Unfortunately, despite a few droll instances, Bernie is largely unfunny. Indeed, the largest nail in this film’s proverbial coffin is that for large portions it is sinfully boring, despite Black’s over-zealous attempts to hold your undivided attention. Perhaps this is simply a case of an intriguing tale not translating particularly well to the big screen. Likewise, perhaps this is a film which appeals for the most part to the American audiences who were already familiar with the story. Either way, British audiences won’t exactly be dying from laughter.
Much credit to Black though, who gives one his best performances to date, earning himself a Golden Globe nomination for this inspired portrayal of the infamous funeral director, ranging from the genial, all-singing citizen to the repentant defendant seen in the latter half. If not for this miraculous casting choice, Bernie would be left six feet under similar counterparts.
However, at the bare bones of this tragicomedy is a unique tale which inevitably will be lost in translation as it crosses the Atlantic onto UK shores, which may explain the prolonged delay since its 2011 premiere. While it can be said to be an interesting slice of American gothic, it is hard to warm to the eponymous character, and the slow pace only exacerbates the pervading apathy, which may bore some to death.