One sentence synopsis: An outgoing funeral director becomes the companion and slave of a bitter old widow.
Things Havoc liked: Jack Black is a surprisingly polarizing figure, I've found. I tend to like him, even in movies that are admittedly not very good (Nacho Libre for instance), and when Black is good (High Fidelity, Tropic Thunder), he's a blast to watch. Generally his appeal comes from his ability to throw himself into roles that other comedians (such as Jim Carey) would turn into simple gag reels of stupidity, and elevate them by appearing smarter than his character is allowed to be. Yet in this film, Black's character (the eponymous Bernie), is a smart, decent man with only the faintest hint of comedy lurking beneath the surface. This is probably the most understated I've ever seen Black, and given his usual fare, one is constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop, and the character to be revealed for the madcap lunatic that Black typically plays, yet it never is.
Black's Bernie is a warm, outgoing, friendly-to-a-fault funeral director, who sees nothing whatsoever oxymoronic about these two attributes. He sings in church and at the amateur theater, gives money and goods away freely to all and sundry, and is well liked by practically everyone in the small town of Carthage, Texas. His character is hinted at as being gay, but never is this either confirmed nor made a matter of ridicule. Certainly he is the toast of the "blue hair" crowd, including Shirley MacLaine's Marjorie Nugent, a bitter, evil woman hated by the rest of the town, who becomes Bernie's sugar momma and slave driver all at the same time. MacLaine is always at her best when playing an abrasive curmudgeon, but outdoes herself here, portraying a character whose appeal is entirely inexplicable to one as nice as Bernie, a fact most of the rest of the townsfolk comment on at length.
Speaking of the townsfolk, they are by far the best element of the film. The movie's framing device is a mockumentary, wherein much of the time is taken up with members of the local community looking into the camera and talking about Bernie and the events that involved him. Normally this approach annoys me, as it seems somewhat lazy for a filmmaker to have characters tell you about a character instead of showing him to you, but in this case the townsfolk themselves are so well drawn, with a perfect combination of small-town aphorisms and rustic "charm" that they steal the show (as well as giving us most of the best lines in the film). As the insanity that is the plot plays out, they are the ones who ground us in what's happening when, and why the various characters are doing what they are.
Finally, the villain of the piece, if he can be called that, is the local sherrif, played by Matthew McConaughey. McConaughey's not my favorite actor in the world, as he usually plays insufferable mugging assholes whom we are expected to accept as leading men (Sahara and Failure to Launch come to mind). Recently though, with movies like this one or The Lincoln Lawyer, he has been transitioning to insufferable mugging assholes whom we are expected to find sleazy. That may not sound like an enormous change, but it makes all the difference in a movie like this. McConaughey does an excellent job as the stuck-up, vaguely homophobic small-town sheriff, all without pushing the boundaries too far into outright villainy.
Things Havoc disliked: The first half of this movie feels like an extended "setup" piece that simply won't end. I was conscious about 45 minutes into it of wondering when the director was going to stop giving me quirky exposition and actually get to the story. In reality, the quirky exposition sort of is the story, in a strange way. It's not a terrible method, and it works better than I thought, but this is a very slow-paced film, taking its sweet time getting anywhere at all. Those coming in expecting a high-energy Jack Black comedy will be sorely disappointed.
Other than that however, there isn't much that the film does wrong, more simply that the material here may not support a runtime of two hours. Much of the film consists of filler material, and while it's good, entertaining filler, it doesn't do a lot to actually advance the story beyond telling us what we already know. I appreciate that the filmmakers intended this, at least to a point, but good as their disguise was for the lack of material, it remains a disguise. While this certainly isn't enough to ruin the film, it does necessarily limit the horizons of the movie.
Final thoughts: Again though, there's very little that this film actually does wrong. In addition to being one of the best performances I've seen from Jack Black, the entire movie has a warmth and verisimilitude to it that is rare in an age where even quirky independent films bear the mark of Hollywood polish. Though its lack of material keeps it from the lofty heights of the best films ever made, there is nothing whatsoever wrong with a simple story, well-told and acted. And given that the cinemas are presently hosting such brilliant pieces as Battleship, one could certainly do far worse.
Indeed, I suspect next week that I will.
Final Score: 7/10