A version of this review appeared in The Age, August 18, 2012.
What sets Richard Linklater apart among modern American filmmakers is his good nature. It's easy to imagine the grimly satirical spin the Coen brothers would have put on this black comedy, closely based on an actual case from Linklater's home turf of East Texas – which, if transposed to France, could also have provided a subject for Claude Chabrol in his mordant prime. By comparison, Bernie seems as cheery as its protagonist Bernhardt Tiede (Jack Black), an assistant funeral director who arrives from Louisiana and soon establishes himself as “just about the most popular man in town”.
With his pants hiked high, his mincing walk and soothing baritone, Bernie might be “somewhat of a sissy” but he's undeniably a pleasure to have around. A splendid singer in church, always ready with a kind gesture or word of advice, he's a friend to everybody, grieving old ladies most of all. He's also a dab hand at every aspect of his profession from delivering obituaries on the radio to preparing corpses for burial – demonstrating the latter skill to a group of attentive students with the flair of a master baker icing a cake.
It says a lot for Black that he has now starred in two of the very best comedies of the 21st century (the other is Michel Gondry's Be Kind, Rewind). It's also worth noting that he was doing Brecht on stage (with Tim Robbins' Actors' Gang) well before his rise to fame: the core joke of his career lies in the gap between the manic characters he often portrays and the clear, demonstrative gestures he uses for the purpose, as if acting for children. This anti-psychological approach is ideally suited to Bernie – an odd mix of excess and restraint, and an instinctive performer who is always “on”. Singing along to a gospel tune on his car radio, he bobs his head, makes catch-and-release hand movements, sells the song to an imaginary public.
The film's brisk yet leisurely first half is spent introducing us to Bernie and his adopted hometown of Carthage – a quiet, prosperous community tucked away “behind the pine curtain”. To guide us through the story, Linklater supplies a Greek chorus of gossiping locals who take turns chatting to camera; much of the humour springs from the contrast between their downright statements and the implication that no-one can know the full truth. What led Bernie to befriend Majorie Nugent (Shirley Maclaine), the wealthiest, meanest widow in town? Was it greed, missionary endeavour, a quasi-romantic attraction – or something less easy to fathom?
Like its hero, Bernie bounces along. Ping-ponging between multiple unreliable narrators, the editing is full of surprises, yet Linklater's approach is so sheerly funny and unpretentious it's possible to overlook his formal sophistication, not to mention the way he poses a perplexing moral riddle. No character serves as the voice of reason, certainly not the district attorney Danny “Buck” Davidson, played by Matthew McConaughey in all his drawling, showboating, toothpick-chewing glory. McConaughey's ongoing comeback is a sight to behold, and Maclaine too is very lively in her glinting, shrunken, birdlike way; she lets us glimpse Majorie's sentimental side, her willingness to forgive herself more than anybody else would.
But memorable as all three leads are, they blend in perfectly with the mostly amateur ensemble – including some actual Carthage citizens who may have enhanced the script with their own folksy turns of phrase. Even the extras make an impact: a courtroom transcriber tapping away at a keyboard with a sour, disinterested look, or the blonde wife Danny accompanies to church to advertise his status as a family man.
For all his singularity, Bernie himself remains an all-American archetype: a frustrated priest, a salesman who believes his own patter, and above all a curious kind of artist. In some respects he's a bush league version of the title character in Linklater's previous fact-based comedy, Me And Orson Welles. Like Welles, Bernie is a versatile talent who tries to do a bit of everything, and a compulsive charmer trapped in mysterious solitude. Both are larger-than-life figures seen from the limited viewpoint of the crowd as flawed, comic, self-deluding, yet somehow irreplaceable.
Whatever ambiguities surround Bernie, there's no doubt about his desire to express love; his disastrous failure on this front might seem a subject for tragedy more than comedy. In the end, though, does he fail so completely? Leaving the question open, Bernie is one of the richest and most unexpected films of the year.