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IN SHORT: Oscar to Jack Black. One of the Best Performances and Films of the Year. [Rated PG-13 for some violent images and brief strong language. 104 minutes]
While you, dear reader, try to wrap your head around that statement, we'll tell you a wee bit about Bernie, the film that catapults comic actor Jack Black to a whole new level of "I never woulda thunk it possible...!"
Set in a tiny Texas town called Carthage, Bernie fixates on Bernie Tiede (Black) the lumbering assistant funeral director with a slightly effeminate manner. How Bernie survived high school is a story left untold in this "based on a true story" film. What we do learn is how a grown male in stridently heterosexual Texas town can endear himself to the community by devoting himself to the local church -- singing in the choir and teaching Sunday School and such -- and taking the point in all town activities. Bernie's mannerisms endear him to the old biddies of the town -- and let's face it, those old biddies will soon be clients of the funeral home -- nor is he threatening to the jocks of the town. If nothing else, Bernie generates an aura of friendliness that affects all the persons in town, including the rich widow sourpuss who would live in a mansion on the hill, if Bernie were a Gothic tale. Which it isn't. Yet.
Said sourpuss is Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) -- to be fair, she is a right proper [word that rhymes with "witch"]. Ms. Nugent is not about to allow herself to fall into the clutches of that <shudder> "man" from the funeral home. On the other hand, Bernie is an endearing, nice guy who is more than willing to take all the abuse she can shovel out. He helps organize her affairs and daily regimen and doesn't ask for a single penny of recompense. In short, Marjorie has found the perfect lackey companion. Bernie being an assistant funeral director means he can be freed to accompany Ms. Nugent on her various trips around the globe. Which he does as a perfect gentleman.
Net result? Marjorie thinks Bernie isn't after her money. Which he really isn't. So she rewrites her will and leaves everything to Bernie. Which he doesn't know about. After many demanding months, Marjorie finds herself, strangely enough ,depending on Bernie to handle even the most unsavory aspects of her affairs. Like cleaning out that disgusting deep freeze in the garage and learning to shoot the free range armadillos that have infiltrated her property.
It's a Texas thing. Armadillos, maybe. Guns, definitely. And by the time director Richard Linklater inserts comments by the people of Carthage as to "what a nice guy Bernie is," the raison d'être of the film comes into focus. Marjorie mysteriously disappears from the town. Bernie comes into control of her fortune and proceeds to dispense said fortune to the less fortunate denizens of Carthage. More to the point, Bernie never keeps a penny for himself.
That little detail doesn't jibe with the usual m.o. of your average murderer/swindler type and when the disappearance of Ms. Nugent crosses the desk of District Attorney Danny "Buck" Davidson (Matthew McConaughey), it is he that uncovers the "crime" at the center of the story. In doing so, Buck also strips Carthage of its new found prosperity and forces the Texas judicial system to redefine the meaning of the term "jury of one's peers".
That is all you need to know.
It's more than we should tell you.
The greatness of Bernie lies in the interaction between Jack Black and Shirley MacLaine. MacLaine can out-act all but one of the current crop of working actresses just by wiggling her pinkie finger. Black's performance kicks him to the same level that Jim Carrey achieved when he recreated Andy Kaufman in Man on the Moon. Looking it up, though, Carrey didn't get nominated for that performance. So maybe Cranky is off the mark (then again, our invitation to join the Academy came without voting privileges so we can say whatever we want without fear of reproach).
How good is Jack Black's performance? Ninety seconds after our screening ended a spasm in my spinal cord took my legs away (as we write it's been about three days). Bernie may be the last film we review for a while. It's a good way to go out, if so.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Ten Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Bernie, he would have paid . . .
Every film we see that we feel is worthy of the little golden guy gets an automatic Nine. Jack Black should win the Oscar that Jim Carrey didn't get for Man on the Moon (in the recreating real people for movies category). Hopefully we're not jinxing his chances.
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