They say everything is bigger in Texas — this is certainly true of Marjorie Nugent, who must be the biggest bitch in the Lone Star state. Jack Black and Shirley MacLaine make a wonderfully odd couple in this little ditty of a film that’s based on a true story.
Jack Black plays Bernie Tiede, a chubby-faced undertaker with a delicate touch. Enchantingly “light in the loafers,” Bernie may just be the nicest guy you’ll ever meet. And boy, can he sing those hymns in church! When he prepares the corpse of wealthy Rob Nugent, he can’t help but reach out to the widow, Marjorie, played by Shirley MacLaine. All piss and vinegar, Marjorie couldn’t be meaner. But Bernie is determined to crack her icy shell and find the goodness inside her. While every single person in Carthage, Texas warns him to stay away from this rattlesnake of a woman, Bernie persists until finally, he not only befriends her, but becomes her full-time paid “companion.” For a while, that is.
When Bernie and Marjorie aren’t traveling the world first class, Bernie engages in his newfound hobby of flying small planes. But if he ever misses Marjorie’s phone call or shows up late to her house, she chastises him with as much vitriol and venom as she can muster. And boy, is it ugly. Not only is she spiteful, she’s manipulative, needy and skillfully plays the victim. She’s a master at attacking Bernie’s manhood and every other insecurity she can uncover. Did I mention she loudly chomps each mouthful of food at least twenty times? Bernie begs her to simply swallow her food, but like an old goat, she continues to masticate away. To be clear, there is no romance between this May/December duo. As one character in the film says referring to Bernie, “That dog doesn’t hunt.” Never the less, Bernie soon realizes he’s in over his head but has grown accustomed to the first-class lifestyle. Finally, Bernie “snaps” and unloads four bullets into the back of Marjorie’s head. Yeah.
The dark comedy in this film comes most effectively when the small town gets behind their beloved Bernie, claiming there’s no way he could have shot mean, old Mrs. Nugent despite his confession. Matthew McConaughey plays Danny Buck, head prosecutor in the case, baffling at the loyalty Bernie inspires. Jack Black could read the phone book and be entertaining, so it’s no surprise he plays Bernie superbly. It is thrilling to see Shirley MacLaine play such a horrible villain, the type of role few women get to sink their fangs into. Director Richard Linklater (School of Rock) co-wrote the script with journalist Skip Hollandsworth based on Hollandsworth’s article in the Texas Monthly. At times however, the movie feels too much like a docudrama, lacking Linklater’s own point of view and personal take on the characters’ motivations, leaving me wanting to know more about what was really going on inside Bernie’s head.
Bottom line: If you’re from Texas or know the real story, there’s much nostalgia to be had in this wonderfully acted dark comedy.
Photo credit: Millenium Entertainment