A small town real-life murder is the inspiration for the latest collaboration between School of Rock director Richard Linklater and actor Jack Black.
A fusion of documentary, drama and comedy, with actor and non-actors, Bernie adopts a tongue-in-cheek approach that seems appropriate for the eccentric characters and setting of what is a truly bizarre story.
Linklater isn't afraid of unconventional approaches to storytelling, with previous films including Before Sunrise, A Scanner Darkly and Dazed and Confused. A mockumentary may not the most respectful approach to the story of how 81-year-old Marjorie Nugent (MacLaine) was murdered by her companion Bernie Tiede (Black), but it's certainly is entertaining.
The idea is for the film to reflect small town gossip; the kind of talk that naturally happened when Marjorie Nugent was murdered in the small town of Carthage, East Texas. Real locals from around Carthage are featured, along with the occasional actor; they talk to camera about their impressions of Bernie and Marjorie and their unusual relationship. They were all given a script but were allowed to say the dialogue in their own words, which makes for genuine and at times highly amusing dialogue.
The first half of this movie focuses on setting the scene for the murder. It's longer than it needs to be as it's relatively easy to get your head around Bernie; a generous and thoughtful assistant funeral director who charms the local widows, wears his pants higher than his belt line, and directs the local musical productions.
Marjorie is even simpler to get, as one of the locals says, she's a "mean, old, hateful bitch". After Marjorie's husband dies the two become friends and it isn't long before Bernie is taking five-star holidays with Marjorie and running her affairs.
The story really kicks in when Marjorie becomes insufferable, possessive and demanding. Unable to cope any longer Bernie shoots her, and keeps the body in the freezer for nine months. The case is a problem for the local District Attorney, Danny Buck Davidson (McConaughey) as he soon realises no local jury will convict the most popular man in town - even if he is a murderer.
Black is charismatic as Bernie, but not in his usual brash and over-the-top manner. He creates an empathetic hero; a kind man who is such a great guy his differences are overlooked by the community.
Even better though, he leaves something a little darker brewing under the surface so that no matter how beloved Bernie is, you're still not entirely sure of his intentions.
For the most part Bernie works well as a charming black comedy interpretation of an unusual real life story, although its length and whimsical nature detract from the real drama of the event.
It feels a little wicked having a giggle at an elderly woman's murder, but somehow I don't think the people of Carthage will mind.
Cast: Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine and Matthew McConaughey
Director: Richard Linklater
Running Time: 104 mins
Rating: M (violence)
Verdict: Long but amusing black comedy.