★★ / ★★★★
The citizens of Carthage, a small town in Texas, regarded Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) so highly, even when he murdered a rich widow, Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), they were convinced he couldn’t have done such a thing. Equally shocking was that some of them thought that Marjorie deserved it. Bernie was a mortician with a magnetic personality. When someone died, he showed his respects by not only preparing the body with the most utmost care, he also made sure that the loved ones of the deceased were not alone in their unbearable grief. On the other hand, Marjorie was hated by everybody in town. Not only was she parsimonious, she was downright unpleasant with people for no reason. When her husband passed away, Bernie became her closest companion. Based on the screenplay by Richard Linklater and Skip Hollandsworth, while “Bernie” was not devoid of humor, it was confusing in terms of what it ultimately wanted to be. Most of its amusement, divided into three sections, stemmed from interviews of those who lived in Carthage: Bernie’s acclaim, Marjorie’s condemnation, and the reactions to the news that Bernie had killed Marjorie. Every scene was bombarded by interviews, more than half unnecessary, which eventually destroyed the film’s dramatic arc. As funny as some of the comments were, I wanted to know who Bernie and Marjorie were divorced from people’s opinion of them. Since the audience didn’t get a chance to observe the two characters without the peanut gallery’s pointed remarks, I felt detached from the killer, the victim, and the murder. Black did the best he could do given the material he had to work with. Although his character was painted by the script as more a caricature than a person who existed in real life (given that the film was based on a true story), there were times when I felt Black trying to step out of the box. The small decisions he made, from the way he would tilt his eyes just when he was about to offer words of encouragement to the way his body would sometimes seem to shock itself erect when his name was called by Marjorie, made an otherwise unvaried writing into something a little more fun. Meanwhile, the style of MacLaine’s acting irked me to the core. There were plenty of times when she acted like a spoiled child instead of an old grouch. Particularly painful to watch was the scene when Bernie came to talk to Marjorie for firing her gardener because she thought he was stealing the lawnmower. Their argument felt extremely false because MacLaine failed to inject her character with edge, someone who was hardened by experience and had grown tired of being abandoned by people. Why not allow her to be human and give us a chance to consider that maybe she wasn’t so bad? Another frustrating element in the film was its neglect of the specific details of the crime. Bernie was able to hide the body for nine months and make everyone believe that the old woman suffered a stroke. There was about a five- to ten-minute uninspiring montage on how he accomplished such a deception. The scenes felt like a series of sketches with subtitles at the bottom that denoted how much time had passed since the murder. Why not show us exactly how Bernie disposed of the body? Why not force us to feel Bernie’s panic when people started asking questions regarding the missing widow? By not doing this, “Bernie,” directed by Richard Linklater, had an air of detachment that prevented the material from taking off. Despite the murder that took place, there was a deficit of curiosity. For a supposed dark comedy, it didn’t take enough risks and so the laughs were few and far between. In retrospect, I believe I unwittingly forced some of my laughs because I desperately wanted to have a good time.