May, 2012, Comedy





There are any number of pleasant surprises in this loopy tale of a murderous mortician, among them, (1) the discovery of comedian Jack Black’s fine singing voice and (2) the fact that Matthew MaConaughey can ditch his beefcake image long enough to deliver a wickedly funny performance. Director Richard Linklater, (Slacker, The School of Rock, Me and Orson Wells) employs his Lone Star origins to pitch-perfect effect in spinning out the black humor involved in the life of Bernie Tiede, now doing hard time in a Texas pen for offing Mrs. Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), the most universally disliked old biddy in Carthage Texas.

 A Greek chorus of town’s most bemused citizens provide a running commentary on Bernie’s slippery road to The Big House; the genius of his embalming skills, the selfless contributions to the civic life of Carthage, his fey courtship of the widow Nugent and finally the machinations he employed to keep her demise from becoming known.

 As Bernie, Jack Black provides a deliciously satiric interpretation of a world-class oddball without allowing the performance to become condescending; the actor is almost defensive of his subject (as is much of Carthage’s population) and it’s to the actor’s credit that he makes the audience care as well. McConaughey’s Danny “Buck” Davidson, the district attorney, combines callously aggressive career ambition with near-total self-absorption; you laugh about what Bernie does and how he does it, but you’ll laugh at Buck’s dime-store egotism. By the time he petitions the local judge to move Bernie’s trial to another jurisdiction in order to assure an unbiased jury in the accused’s favor, the audience finds itself rooting for this soft-spoken bad guy as strenuously as the perplexed neighbors do.

 Alas, plaudits cannot be given to MacLane. Her depiction of a mean old lady lacks the inherent nastiness required to compete with Black’s flamboyance and McConaughey’s self-adulation. It’s not that the old bat wasn’t an old bat - - it’s just that MacLaine injects so little energy into her performance she comes off as just not being interested in contributing anything…and it shows.

 The director and his cast of local actors enliven the script’s consistently wry speeches with a credibility only past exposure to the nuances of small town life can provide; a host of pitch-perfect pseudo-interviews magically transform this macabre into 100 minutes of consistently funny tongue-in-cheek entertainment, delivered with dead-pan sincerity. Never have so many downright outrageously awful things been said with such aw-shucks hilarity.

 While the virtues of Bernie are many, the movie won’t please those unwilling to set aside their moral scruples (after all, he did kill her) to watch a group of marvelously-etched downhome personalities dish the dirt about one another. Bernie doesn’t deliver a number of outright belly laughs - - just consistent amazement at the bizarre conduct we humans are capable of.

 The Verdict? A wickedly accurate look at life in Mayberry USA, East-Texas style. Yep, they see things diffirtly down thar.

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