Bernie is a small-town courtroom tale that would have Atticus Finch spinning in his grave. Luckily, the title character is an assistant funeral director with a magnanimous heart: He surely would be happy to touch up the corpse of the saintly Mississippi lawyer.
Richard Linklater's winning comedy has a sudden murder at its center, but who fires shots at whom is not the most surprising part of the movie. Nor is it the fact that Matthew McConaughey is not only tolerable, but genuinely funny. His role as a vain district attorney is one of the movie's most important performances. Also among the surprises—but still none of them the biggest one—is that the most popular guy in a small Texas town (one so tiny that the school lunch menu is broadcast on the local radio station) is an assistant funeral director who is probably gay, and that he befriends the meanest woman in the region (Shirley MacLaine), and that (spoiler alert!) halfway through the movie he murders her in cold blood.
Turning a moralistic courtroom drama like To Kill a Mockingbird on its head, the biggest surprise about Bernie is the way it shifts from a chirpy comedy about cold-blooded murder to a tricky moral tale without weighing down its easygoing tone or casual, jokey spirit. It's a courtroom comedy with a moral center, the keeper of which is McConaughey's Danny Buck, the too-tan D.A. with the self-serving wisecracks.
As Linklater carries the audience into the courtroom where Bernie (Jack Black) goes on trial for murder, he establishes a funny sort of reverse mob rule: Rather than the familiar tale of a town going nuts to lynch an alleged killer without a fair trial, the community unanimously laments the likely conviction of a confessed killer due to a fair trial. Not that you can blame them. Bernie's good-natured community spirit is so boundless you wonder if some part of his brain—the selfishness cells, the vanity impulse, the survival instinct—is missing. When he's not directing and starring in a community theater production, he's springing for the Little League team's pizza. The Bernie character would seem ludicrous if Black hadn't somehow figured out how to make him so familiar. Black's habitation of this potentially cartoonish role feels so sincere that he almost makes Bernie's undersized mustache and overstarched shirts look good.
But what everyone except McConaughey's Buck seems to forget, and what Linklater tempts you to overlook, is that just because a mean bitch was offed by a nice guy, that doesn't mean it's not murder. Honestly, I'd have to see Bernie again to be sure I understand how Linklater manages to capture how complicated this is without sacrificing his moral certainty, or how he keeps Bernie sparklingly amusing without being gauche or maudlin. The last thing we want, says Bernie while he's holding forth on the art of prepping a corpse for presentation at a funeral, is grief tragically turning into comedy. Or, for Linklater's purposes, the last thing we want is comedy becoming tragically portentous.
Read about the true story behind Bernie in "How My Aunt Marge Ended Up in the Deep Freeze..." from The New York Times.
This article appeared in print with the headline "A murderer in sheep's clothing."