The real stars of Richard Linklater's Bernie are, unquestionably, the townspeople of Carthage.
In documentarylike interviews, the East Texas locals (a mix of real Carthage folk and Texas actors) fill the film from start to finish -- a gang of colorful gossips whose heavy accents and wry prattle essentially narrate Bernie.
What drives their fascination is the true-life tale of a mannered, devout mortician, Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), who in 1997 was arrested in the killing of elderly millionaire heiress Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine). The remarkable thing about the case is just how out of character such an act was for Tiede.
As Black plays him, he's cartoonishly cheerful -- not just a churchgoing man, but a member of the choir and just about every other community group. Even Nugent, who is as bitterly grim as Tiede is hopelessly bright, eventually succumbs (that is, eases a sliver) to allow Tiede into her life. He becomes her companion and manservant. Her possessiveness (MacLaine is hardened as never before) eventually cracks Tiede, who, in a moment of fury that astounds even him, shoots her in the back. The fallout brings in smooth, self-promoting District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey, perfectly cast and with perfect Texas D.A. eyewear).
The script was co-written by Linklater and Skip Hollandsworth, whose 1998 Texas Monthly article is the basis of the film. Throughout, there's a tension of real life and fiction, and a pervading sense that fiction has little chance of matching the real thing.
Bernie never quite rises to full comedy, but remains locked in a state of satirical curiosity, marveling at its own contradictions. Black, who memorably starred in Linklater's School of Rock, never gives in to a punch line, but his grand, absurdist performance is much closer to parody than realism.
One wishes Bernie submitted fully to dark satire and shed its milder tone. But it also could be that the film works better as a curiosity -- a dark comedy that's not entirely dark and not quite a comedy, either.
Bernie is Austin-based Linklater's Preston Sturges comedy, an ode to small-town Texas life. Carthage isn't appalled by Tiede's act; on the contrary, its townspeople are sympathetic. Tiede, after all, was a great neighbor and, to them, civil society is so prized as to outweigh a little ol' thing like murder.
Such clannishness ends at the city limits, though. When one townsperson maps his view of Texas, accounting for the "Dallas snobs" and the "liberal fruitcakes" of "the People's Republic of Austin," Linklater is clearly having fun.
Exclusive: Landmark Magnolia, Dallas; Angelika Plano