Hollywood usually portrays every small town below the Mason-Dixon Line as a repository of high hair, honeyed accents and Confederate nostalgia. In the black comedy “Bernie,” however, director Richard Linklater and his co-writer Skip Hollingsworth reveal the South from the point of view of insiders. As one character points out, the story doesn’t just take place in Texas, it takes place in East Texas, “behind the pine curtain,” a region distinct from the plains of West Texas, the Mexican-flavored South Texas border, Houston and the “carcinogenic coast,” etc.
Hollingsworth’s Texas Monthly article about a sensational court case inspired “Bernie,” but Linklater would probably bring the same sense of place and real-world detail to a fictional film. The movie tends to be a little constrained by its factual nature and provokes more knowing chuckles than helpless belly laughs, but its affectionate, joshing-around tone makes audiences feel right at home.
Perhaps the most popular son of Carthage, Texas, is Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), a serene but tireless funeral director who brings the same effervescence to a church hymn that he delivers in a lecture about the proper way to prepare a body for viewing. “He’s now been cosmetized. He’s ready to be dressed and casketed,” Bernie announces to a group of student morticians after making a corpse presentable with loving attention.
Bernie includes community outreach in his work and pays courtesy calls on new widows. He even breaks down the defenses of Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), a crotchety millionaire thoroughly disliked by townsfolk. “Her nose was so high, she’d drown in a rainstorm,” quips one neighbor. Bernie gradually becomes the only person Marjorie can tolerate and they become “traveling companions,” with Bernie freely spending her money. But what seems the ideal arrangement for two eccentrics becomes untenable when Marjorie demands constant attention and petty servitude, until Bernie reaches a breaking point.
I won’t spell out the specifics, but the film’s second half finds Bernie on trial for a major crime, prosecuted by District Attorney Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey). The citizens of Carthage rally around Bernie, despite his confession, because he’s just so gosh-durn likable compared with Marjorie, and constantly harangue Buck on Bernie’s behalf, whether he’s at a diner or a checkout line.
“Bernie” touches on the paradox of how a town of churchgoing conservatives can embrace a confirmed bachelor with a lilting voice, a penchant for musical theater and no interest in dating eligible women his age. As long as gay people remain entirely closeted, they can be pillars of a certain kind of community. Southern hospitality and “don’t ask, don’t tell” can blur into each other.
Black’s strengths as a performer suit Bernie extremely well, because the role is so relentlessly upbeat and social that he shows virtually no introspection. Bernie may not know what he really feels any more than the audience does. It’s easy to forget that Linklater directed Black in possibly his best lead performance before now, as the irresponsible music teacher in “School of Rock.” In contrast with Black’s usual slobby, eyebrow-arching, bad-boy persona, Bernie focuses all that energy into projecting niceness, seeking to win friends without threatening people.
Linklater makes wonderful use of Black’s musical ability, and fans of his acoustic and heavy-metal act Tenacious D will be amused to hear him sing the praises of God rather than Satan. In an early scene, Bernie drives along singing to the gospel song “Love Lifted Me,” and it’s as lively a moment as John Candy lip-synching to Ray Charles in “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.” Black romps around to “76 Trombones” in a community theater production of “The Music Man,” in a scene highly reminiscent of “Waiting for Guffman’s” spoof of small-town performers. But Linklater proves far less condescending to Middle Americans than did Christopher Guest.
Despite his reputation as a bland heartthrob, McConaughey gives a surprisingly funny and specific performance as an image-conscious public figure who clearly believes he’s more charismatic than he is. Buck’s white Stetson hat and cowboy boots come across as studied parts of his image, and at times he sits in unnatural positions, as if to make sure we can see his boots. Ironically, he is the story’s antagonist even though he’s trying to uphold the law.
MacLaine plays Marjorie in a softer register than you might expect, given that she so often portrays feminine forces of nature. Marjorie has her share of tantrums, but more often she conveys a morose mood and peremptory manners. Perhaps the actress wants to maintain a level of respect and sensitivity in a role based on a real person.
The movie’s supporting players consist of character actors and real Carthage townsfolk, and in a testament to the casting director, you often can’t tell which is which. Bernie’s friends and neighbors recount the story as a kind of gossipy Greek chorus, occasionally ad-libbing, and the device succeeds marvelously. Linklater clearly wants to laugh with these colorful Texas personalities rather than hold them up to ridicule. You don’t have to be a native Southerner to enjoy “Bernie’s” portrayal of East Texas foibles or find Carthage a nice place to visit.
“Bernie.” With Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine. Directed by Richard Linklater. Rated PG-13. 104 minutes. At United Artists Tara Cinemas.