Richard Linklater’s new movie contains all the “outrageous” elements obligatory to deadpan, small-town true crime. Nice-guy killer? Meet Bernie Tiede, hymn-singing assistant mortician with a penchant for wooing blue-haired ladies. Macabre corpse disposal? The body of Marjorie Nugent, Tiede’s 81-year-old benefactor, was stashed in a garage freezer for nine months. Ironic upshot? Tiede was so popular after giving Nugent’s fortune away, his trial had to be moved out of town. Yet the one truly daring element in Bernie is the one that makes it seem not like a movie at all.
Linklater is a Texas native whose best movies (Dazed and Confused, Waking Life) exploit his easy rapport with his shambolic Lone Star compadres. For the first half of Bernie, he uses mockumentary interviews with the main-street gossips of Carthage, Texas, as a kind of Greek chorus. Their piquant observations—“she’d tear you a double-wide, three-bedroom, two-bath asshole”—form the film’s backbone and highlight. They also make its structure fall somewhere between a Herzog documentary and an episode of Radiolab. (Actually, what Bernie most resembles is Calvin Trillin’s great piece of Kansas reportage, “Rumors Around Town,” all the way down to scandal and rubbernecking draped in church-supper piety.) The fake interviews, however, make the bits of drama in between seem artificial and secondhand: It’s impossible to suspend the knowledge that you’re watching a re-enactment, because the picture itself keeps using a distancing effect. Imagine Waiting for Guffman if all the talking heads were audience members thinking back on the big play.
It doesn’t help that Bernie Tiede was essentially a real-life Corky St. Clair, ceaselessly directing musicals and in deeply unpersuasive denial of his flamboyant orientation. He’s played here by Jack Black, who, in a striking reversal from his own predilections, is good in the small moments and bad in the big ones. Bernie screams to a halt every time Black starts caterwauling a hymn like he’s trying to lay down Tenacious D’s contemporary Christian record. Matthew McConaughey is better as a publicity-hungry district attorney, but Shirley MacLaine barely registers before being dispatched—except in one brilliant scene where she silently insists on chewing her refried beans 25 times before swallowing. That’s the one moment you need to see for yourself. Everything else is better in the telling. PG-13.
Critic’s Grade: B-
SEE IT: Bernie opens Friday at Fox Tower.