Neither fish nor fowl, director Richard Linklater’s hybrid whatzit takes a too-strange-not-to-be-true tale from the tabloids and fleshes it out halfway, relying on eyewitness testimony and documentary devices to fill in all the scenes that nobody probably felt like writing that day.
Jack Black stars as the title character, a swishy mortician in a tiny Texas town. He’s the kind of guy who used to politely be called “a confirmed bachelor,” and spends his evenings accompanying elderly women to musical-theater revues. For reasons that never do become clear, Bernie takes a shine to Shirley MacLaine’s super-rude old lady, and despite her not having a single ingratiating character trait, the two enjoy tropical vacations and have a grand old time spending her late husband’s money.
That is, until Bernie shoots her in the back and stuffs her in a meat freezer.
The trial becomes a circus, with Matthew McConaughey’s grandstanding small-town sheriff riding the headlines for all they’re worth. If there’s any reason to see the picture, it’s McConaguhey. Wearing wide, rimless glasses and an exceedingly silly hat, the actor sends up his heartthrob image with tedious pontificating and self-aggrandizing publicity stunts.
But Linklater is too content to leave the camera on townspeople from Carthage, Texas, talking to the camera. I presume some of these folks are the real deal while others (including McConaughey’s mom) are hired pros. Either way, it’s lazy screenwriting, handing over all your exposition and detail work to people who just speak it all out loud, unimaginatively, into the lens. Actual scenes with Black, MacLaine and McConaughey start to feel like over-acted interruptions to the documentary we’d rather be watching.
I suppose this is the part of the review where we’re all supposed to applaud Jack Black for playing an actual character instead of just doing his usual screaming Jack Black thing, but I’m still not buying it. Always too big for whatever scene he’s in, Black prances along doing dainty things with his hands and adopts a phony honeyed accent. During the closing credits, Linklater makes sure to show us footage of Black studying the real-life Bernie, because that makes it all more believable?