Bernie. Based on a true story, Black plays mild-mannered Bernie Tiede, a beloved figure in little Carthage, Texas, who commits a shocking act. Bernie is one of those “confirmed bachelors” who seem to be involved in everything in town. He’s a conscientious funeral director who gives lectures on how best to prepare bodies for viewing, he stars in and directs the local community theater musicals, and he even serenades the citizens with a rendition of “Beautiful Dreamer” when asked. He also pumped four shots into the back of widow Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) with her own “armadillo gun”.
What would make Carthage’s favorite son commit cold-blooded murder? And will the self-promoting prosecutor, hilariously played by Linklater favorite Matthew McConaughey, use Bernie’s case to make a name for himself? Linklater frames Bernie’s story with talking head interviews of sympathetic Carthage neighbors, all of whom paint Mrs. Nugent in the worst possible light, while praising the beloved Bernie. It gives the film a Lifetime docudrama (with an A-List cast) feel.
Title cards pose questions like “Is Bernie gay?” and Linklater and Black do nothing to dispel that perception.
MacLaine makes Marjorie into a sympathetic gorgon, part irascible Ouiser Boudreau from Steel Magnolias and part lonely Eve Rand from Being There. She’s one of those women who has literally driven everyone in her life away, but Bernie won’t take no for an answer, so she lets him in. For a while the free-spending widow makes Bernie feel like a king as he escorts her all over the world.
Old habits die hard, and soon, Marjorie is treating Bernie like a servant, which is one thing he won’t tolerate. However, he loves the good life she’d given him, so out comes the Armadillo Gun. Problem solved, at least for a (surprisingly long) time.
The real Bernie is in prison, though, so you know how it turns out.
As a film, Bernie is entertaining and filled with great performances, especially by Black, but it ultimately feels like a simple true crime story without much of a payoff. I Love You Phillip Morris took a similar true Texas tale and made it something outrageous. Bernie the film is as mild and unassuming as its title character. You’ll enjoy spending time with Bernie and company, but you might not remember him once he’s sent away.
Reel Thoughts Rating: B-
Review by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.