Silver Screen: Bernie ****
Richard Linklater's latest, Bernie, is ostensibly a darkly comic look at a strange-but-true small-town murder. That would be enough-- the bizarre case of a funeral director who murdered his pseudo-platonic benefactress packs more than enough unlikely twists and outlandish details to justify the big-screen treatment. But Austin, Texas-based Linklater is more interested in crafting a kind of quirky ode to his home state and creating a portrait of a small-town community. Think of it as a southern counterpart to the Coen brothers' Fargo, or a non-alcoholic Winesburg, Ohio.
Linklater populates his movie with several actual citizens of Carthage, Texas, via interview footage, and integrates them into the background of several scenes. It's interesting how immediately it becomes apparent that these side players aren't some casting director's approximation of what small-town Texas folk look like, but that they are in fact the real deal; it shows in the character in their faces and in the casual colorfulness of their expressions. The people of Carthage collectively narrate the film and usher the narrative along on a tide of opinion, speculation, and gossip that lends the film a splendid authenticity.
The man they've all gathered to discuss is not a Texas native, but came to Carthage seeking work and quickly established himself as the town's favorite adopted son. Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) was living in Louisiana when funeral director Don Leggett (the wonderfully naturalistic Rick Dial) brought him on as his assistant, sight unseen. It proves to be a good gamble when Bernie reveals himself to be a true master of the funeral business, artful in his reconstruction and preparation of the bodies but also keenly attuned to the emotional delicacies of the clients. His obvious empathy for Carthage's bereaved is matched by his enthusiasm for all things municipal, be it helming plays for the community theater, leading the church choir, or heading up charity fundraisers.
The people of Carthage are baffled when Bernie strikes up a close friendship with Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), the spiteful heir to the town's largest fortune. Bernie always took great care with senior citizens and widows in particular, but his alliance with Marjorie was baffling: the nicest and the meanest person in town in cahoots? Rumors abounded. Was it a romantic relationship? Bernie's sexual orientation was already a point of discussion, as an effeminate bachelor with an affinity for fine dining and musical theater living in Dixieland. That the ever-generous Bernie could be gold-digging seems barely to have been considered.
Yet that's the motive district attorney Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey) leaps to when Carthage is hit with the shocking news: Bernie killed Marjorie with four gunshots to the back, by his own admission. The subsequent trial, replete with Danny Buck's legal shenanigans or just savvy lawyerin', depending on who you ask, divides a town that seemingly cannot come to agreement on some of the most basic truths. (It's notable, despite not only Bernie's conviction but confession, that one of the townspeople insists on his total innocence during an interview clip in the closing credits.)
Bernie is a macabre delight from Linklater, an exceedingly eclectic (and genuinely independent) director perhaps best known for the classic coming-of-age comedy Dazed and Confused, but whose best work tends toward the cerebral: Waking Life, Before Sunset, Tape. Bernie marries the talking-head collage of his breakout indie hit Slacker with the more easygoing pace of his more mainstream fare like The Newton Boys or his Bad News Bears remake. Bernie lacks the artsy audacity of Waking Life or the Before Sunset/Sunrise companion pieces, but it's deceptively, casually insightful.
Bernie also represents some of the best work Black and McConaughey have ever done. Both performers are immensely charming but sometimes need saving from their own worst impulses: Black to mug and shout, McConaughey to ditch his shirt and phone it in. Linklater flips the stereotypes so that Black's performance is hilarious in its almost dainty restraint, while McConaughey is charged up with the goofy energy of a fast-talking and totally self-assured small-town lawyer. Perhaps the only greater crime than Marjorie's murder is that Linklater just doesn't give us enough Danny Buck.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.