Bernie is a dark comedy that uses dry wit to win over it’s audience. It’s a strange little dramedy with an off the wall premise; an extremely friendly middle aged man befriends and then murders an elderly woman that controls much of the small town of Carthage’s economy. Bernie is active in the local church, he’s the best funeral home worker the town has ever seen, he stars in and directs local plays and musicals, he’s kind to everyone, particularly the elder women of Carthage. Bernie is essentially the guy that everyone knows and loves. This movie would have not been nearly as fascinating had it not been for on thing; Bernie is a true story.
Jack Black and Shirley MaClaine, play the parts of Bernie Tiede and Marge Nugent. Black embodies the overly sweet and quirky titular character while Maclaine channels an unfriendly, borderline evil woman that finds pleasure in causing others misery. Bernie and Marge met at Mr. Nugents funeral, after which the two became inseparable. Bernie became Marge’s Constant companion, often taking lavish vacations together. Watching this movie with the knowledge that the majority of it is based on actual facts is fascinating. With the exception of minor dialogue and a few creative liberties, the details are surprisingly accurate.
Jack Black gives us one of his best character performances to date. The opening sequence where he goes into detail on how to prepare a body for burial sets the stage for the movie. His character is completely familiar with death, he works at a funeral parlor and is praised for his work ethic and the devotion he puts in to his job. It’s a dark job for such a sweet person. While the exact emotions and thoughts of Bernie Tiede may never be known, the small glimpses into his life and mannerisms showed a man that was capable of compartmentalizing emotions and actions. He appears to be genuinely kind as well as remorseful for what he does.
While Black’s performance was fantastic, one of the strongest aspects of the movie are the interviews with the citizens of Carthage. The interview format that permeates the course of the film make it almost documentary like. I came to find out that the reason behind a lot of the convincing performances given is because a number of the interviews are with actual citizens rather than actors. It’s part documentary part narrative film. The movie uses the oddities of the case and of the town and it’s inhabitants to it’s comedic potential. Black is absolutely hilarious, Maclaine is easy to dislike and the townspeople are genuine and give the most believable performance.
Knowing a little bit about the movie and the characters involved seemed to add to the viewing experience. It’s hard to laugh at an actual murder, but the circumstances surrounding both the crime and the trial are so bizarre that it’s no wonder this was billed as a dark comedy. From all accounts, Mrs. Nugent was a truly unkind person, but she certainly didn’t deserve to be killed, this is something that the real Bernie Tiede believed, even if others didn’t. If you’re interested in learning more about this story, I reccomend this New York Times article written by Marge Nugent’s nephew. It’s an interesting read and companion to the movie. The film, at the time that I wrote this, is streaming on Netflix.