What if someone committed a murder and no one cared, 3.5 readers?
It’s the 1990s and assistant funeral director Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) is the most beloved citizen of the small town of Carthage, Texas. An unmarried man in his late 30s, Tiede excels at giving the dearly departed the best funerals possible, and finds a legion of adoring fans in the form of the town’s elderly widows who leaned on him after their husbands passed.
Rumored, though not proven, at least in the movie, to be gay, Bernie prefers the company of old women, often befriending them and squiring them around town. The movie is shot in a documentary style, and as the interviewed residents note, the area is quite conservative, so if Bernie had been gay, he would have most likely kept it to himself out of fear of public reprisal. Then again, he may very well have been a straight man who liked to hang out with old chicks. The movie never tells, and I’m too lazy to look it up on my own and yes, this is based on a true story.
The most ornery widow of all was Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine). Her late husband was loaded and she meets Bernie after his passing. Literally everyone in town despises the old buzzard, as she goes out of her way to insult and push people away, especially in her role as the owner of the town bank, where her favorite hobby is turning down loans.
Bernie and Margie became unlikely friends. Marge, having ample financial resources, whisks Bernie away on international travel, and Bernie, though he claims to just trying to be a good friend to the old woman, clearly enjoys being spoiled rotten by her generosity.
In fact, he enjoys it too much, for he takes Margie up on an offer to cut his hours at the funeral home down to part time, so that he can devote the rest of his time to being her personal manservant. Though she is generous on Bernie with gifts and money, she is also controlling and domineering, obscenely jealous of every second he spends away from her. Though he’s the only one around willing to speak to her (her entire family refuses to talk to her because she’s so mean) she insults and harangue’s Bernie incessantly, minor screwups in fulfilling her commands become fodder for her to dump on him endlessly.
One day, in the midst of one of Margie’s temper tantrums, Bernie snaps and loses it, grabbing a rifle usually used for garden varmint control and shooting the old lady dead.
He immediately regrets it, but his attempts to cover it up show he is no master criminal. Alas, he throws the poor old woman in a chest freezer, tells everyone who asks that she had to be checked into a nursing home due to a stroke, and then goes wild with her money, not on himself, but on the community, donating the old woman’s money to every cause and charity and helping those in need.
All this good will, under the auspices of it being wished by Margie but carried out by Bernie at her command, seems out of character for the old skinflint, and naturally, townsfolk take notice until Bernie is caught.
Ah, but the rub is, sadly, when Bernie is caught. no one cares, except for DA Danny Buck (Matthew McConaughey.)
The Mattster has been in a lot of great roles, but this is a great performance lost to the ages because the film was just not that popular. Buck, who as a politician, is a masterful headline grabber, but his interest in pursuing justice in this case is genuine. As Buck is harassed by townsfolk all day who want to know why he can’t just let Bernie off the hook, Buck, in the movie’s best line, tells one angry resident that if she were ever to be shot four times and shoved in a freezer, wouldn’t she want someone to care about her?
Overall, the movie is a good study of personality, how in many ways, it is everything, but also, the value of life i.e. isn’t the life of even a not-nice person valuable? Did Bernie have a one time freak out that could have happened to anyone given the right set of circumstances, or is there a monster under the surface, one that could kill again if left unchecked?
STATUS: Shelf-worthy. I know comedies rarely get Oscar recognition but if Black was ever to get some Oscar love it would have/should have been for this.