This review first appeared in the Sunday Star Times, 26th August 2012
“Bernie Tiede was goshdarnit just about the nicest guy you could ever hope to meet,” we are told from the get-go. “So whatever he did, he musta had a reason.”
So goes the hilarious, surprising and alarmingly delightful story of an undertaker’s assistant whose friendship with an older widow takes an unexpected turn. Talented comedian, actor and musician Jack Black plays the titular bachelor, a Pollyanna of a man who is friends with everyone in his small town of Carthage, East Texas. Devoted to sending people off to the afterlife with complete care and attention, his after-sale service extends to visiting the widows bearing gift baskets and uplifting words. A compulsive optimist, it’s clear Bernie just craves love and attention, but this film ensures it sidesteps psychological diagnosis and instead keeps things squarely in the realm of the agreeably bizarre.
Based on a true story (!), director Richard Linklater teams up again with his School of Rock star in a mockumentary which intersperses interviews of local folks invariably singing Bernie’s praises with Jack Black’s exuberant portrayal. Black is the perfect actor for a character so warm and beloved, with his joyful singing (wedged into as many scenes as possible) and infectious good nature. He never comes across as smirking at the role he’s playing in the way that Will Ferrell does, and this is key for the audience’s ability to root for Bernie and not just see his motives as manipulative and greedy.
Shirley MacLaine is brilliant as bitter old Mrs Nugent (“Her nose was so high, she’d drown in a rainstorm” says a neighbour), and Matthew McConaughey does good deadpan. Together, these great talents deliver a story as charming and lively as the real Bernie would no doubt like to be portrayed.