Ladies, gentlemen, and entertainment blog enthusiasts: we have a winner.
And not just any winner, either. I’m talking a gold medal, blue ribbon, first-in-show county fair winner in Bernie, the deliriously and deliciously fiendish dark comedy starring Jack Black and Shirley MacLaine. This is as good as it’s been at the movies in a good long while, and with the herd of the popcorn blockbusters pawing at the summer movie gate that’s about to be opened, you can bet it’s as good as it’s going to be until Oscar season rolls around in six months. Fans of great cinema, this one’s for you.
Inspired by what we’re told is a real life story, Bernie is about a beloved southerner named Bernie Tiede (Black) who is the “special friend” of an eccentric and bitter old woman named Mrs. Nugent (MacLaine). Their relationship is more than friendship; hell, it’s more than romance: it’s a reciprocal symbiosis of deep, repressed needs.
Nugent, whose wealth is only matched by her loneliness, finds an unlikely savior in the town’s befuddled mortuary artist, Bernie. She apparently hates him at first – not because of anything he says or does, but because she doesn’t know how to access her other emotions.
Unfortunately for her, Bernie knows exactly how to do that, and soon the two are off on lavish trips, expensive dinners, and outings that raise the eyebrows of fellow onlookers. Mrs. Nugent enjoys Bernie’s company – a bit too much, we come to discover – and tries to make him another one of her (shall we say) assets.
Soon, she turns up dead, her apparent murder the subject of an investigation being carried out by district attorney Danny Buck (Matthew McConaughey, mercifully is less than cringe worthy mode). Bernie keeps the body in a freezer for nine months, and when other such lurid details become public knowledge, the townspeople are beside themselves with confusion over how to react. Bernie is, much to their chagrin, still a beloved member of the community, especially its widows. So what if he kills one . . . or two?
The movie can be recommended on the strength of its script alone, which is brilliantly hashed out on screen by Black, MacLaine, and McConaghey. Black plays the part completely straight, sans any affectation, making Bernie one of the most memorable screen creations since Forrest Gump. He may be a small-time funeral parlor director whose only real expertise is in making the dead look “less dead”, but his intentions and ambitions are big-time – as is his ability to make others believe what they think he wants them to believe. It’s a devilish tickle of a good time.