I knew very, very little going into this movie. I hadn’t even seen the trailer. So I guess I wasn’t so surprised when it turned out not to be what I expected. The film tells the true story of a man who totally changed small Texas town in a very unique way. Bernie (Jack Black) is an assistant mortician whom the entire town feels is one of the nicest men in the world. He ends up befriending a rich widow named Marjorie (Shirley MacLaine), who most believe to be one of the most hateful women in the world. Her ways end up wearing him down until he finally snaps and kills her… but then tries to pull it off as if she’s still alive for months on end. And eventually, the DA, Danny Buck (Matthew McConaughey) has to investigate.
The first thing about this movie I noticed that I didn’t expect was its format. The film plays out more like a documentary with dramatic re-enactments than an actual film. It even goes so far as to cast the real townsfolk of Carthage as themselves, basically, telling their stories of Bernie. This format is leads to both one of my biggest positives and my main negative for the film. The positive is how genuine and real the film feels. Maybe it’s because I’m from Texas, but this flick had me from the minute the guy started talking about the different segments of Texas and how drastically different they are that they might as well be different states. And it’s so true. His entire explanation was perfect. And then using the real people and whatnot really helped add to the realism of everything. Even those who are clearly actors pull it off just fine.
In fact, the biggest thing this film has going for it is Jack Black’s performance. The man carries this movie entirely. This is the first movie I can pretty much thing of where he wasn’t acting as an extension of himself. Instead, he was just… acting. And he does a damn fine job at it. He loses himself in this role, and what most people have been saying is right: this is his best actual performance of his career thus far.
Unfortunately, the film has one pretty glaring problem… it’s about a 100-minute film and it only has about 60 minutes worth or story. The actual “plot” doesn’t kick in until about 50 minutes in. The first 50 minutes or so gets very repetitive and dull after a while, as all it does is emphasize how much of a good guy Bernie is and how well everybody likes him and how terrible of a person Marjorie is and how everyone hates her. It’s like “OK, I get it already. Move on.” The worst part is that it’s never anything new. It’s basically the same anecdotes over and over again. And when they aren’t talking about him, they’re showing him sing in church.
And they build up the relationship between Bernie and Marjorie supposedly so that the inevitable kill and after-effects have more impact… but it really doesn’t. In fact, I was left pretty disappointed. The main plot of this is that he tries to get away with the murder by pretending she’s still alive. That part of the movie lasts, what… 15-20 minutes tops? The impact the after-effects has on the town is interesting, but it soon becomes an extension of the first 50 minutes with the same people just saying over and over again how great of a person Bernie is.
Despite this, though, it was a fascinating movie. Most of that, again, was thanks to Jack Black’s superb performance. And the fact this was an actual true story (and not one of the typical fake-true Hollywood stories) that used real people from the event made it even more outstanding. But something needed to be done about the pacing, because this was a 60-minute movie stretched into 100 minutes only with the hope of Jack Black’s performance and the realism of the characters to carry it. And to a point, they do. And you should see it just for that.
(P.S. Interesting (slightly spoilerific) tidbit… the prison he ends up in? It’s like 45 minutes away from me.)