IF YOU need a masterclass in embalming, then look no further than Richard Linklater’s newish film, since it’s been on the shelf since 2011 – and yet Bernie deserves a better fate than a quick burial on DVD.
Director: Richard Linklater
Running time: 99 minutes
It begins with funeral director Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) teaching a class of mortuary students how to prepare the deceased to look their best, down to arranging the mouth into a pleasing expression using superglue. It’s a nice scene that tells you a lot about Bernie: he’s meticulous, good with people, dead and alive, and willing to affix a pleasant face to the world.
Black’s kinetic eyebrows and stentorian style are reined right back from his last Linklater collaboration, School Of Rock. Bernie is all southern manners and delicacy, right down to his mini moustache and dainty walk. A civic-minded churchgoer, he never has a bad word for anyone, especially a recently bereaved widow. And in his spare time he runs the local drama club, playing the leads in productions like The Music Man. Of course, if you’ve seen the show or The Simpsons, you’ll be well aware that the Music Man was a charismatic showboater who eventually led a town around by the nose; but is Bernie a hard-nosed conman, or a pathological teddy bear?
Wealthy widow Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) is the Grinch of East Texas, but even she softens a little when Bernie turns his attention to her after her husband dies. Soon he’s her personal assistant, then a paid companion travelling the world in first-class, and eventually she rewrites her will, making him sole heir. The trade-off is that her demands and sour disposition grind Bernie down. Since MacLaine’s Marjorie never seems to shift gears from battleaxe mode, it’s a relief when she disappears and months before anyone suspects that Bernie may be guilty of murder.
It sounds as if Linklater watched The Ladykillers after a Stilton sandwich, but Bernie is based on a real incident in Carthage, Texas, reported by Skip Hollandsworth, who wrote the script with Linklater and peppers it with Carthage locals, actors and actual residents, who reminisce about the scandal. They rather reinforce the point that when Bernie goes to trial, district attorney Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey) has to move the case because he can’t find a jury in Carthage who would doubt Bernie’s decency.
Bernie is Linklater’s first narrative feature since Me And Orson Welles, and like that film it’s a bit too willing to treat us to surface quirk. Why is Bernie so keen on older women when it’s clear he’s discreetly gay? Maybe because he lost both his parents at a young age: but you won’t find that detail here. Neither a terribly dark comedy, nor much of a provocation, what we’re left with is basically a Coen Brothers picture with its teeth pulled.
• On selected release from Friday