Bernie is perhaps one of the strangest movies I’ve ever seen, if only because of the way it made me feel about it, myself, and the people around me. I was mixed on it, I had to reevaluate the way I felt about certain things, and I reaffirmed my belief that everyone else around me is crazy, thanks to the way they reacted to it. Seeing Bernie with a rather large audience is probably the best way to experience it, although I suspect it’ll play out differently when you see it at home — and I will definitely be doing so.
The film stars Jack Black, which was initially a turn-off for me considering I’ve never liked him in a live-action role. Ever. I can’t think of a single time where I walked away from a movie and went “Yeah, I thought Jack Black did a good job.” He’s fine in animated things, as his energy is good enough to carry him, but in live-action, I find his attempts to be funny just terrible. Here, he plays Bernie, a picture-perfect definition of a Mary Sue character. He is the nicest man alive, which is something confirmed by a bunch of interviews containing testimony from his fellow townspeople.
He has no flaws. He wants to help people, he donates all of his money and free time, he’s adored by everyone, and he goes out of his way in order to make sure that everyone is happy. He’s also a funeral director, so the people that he’s helping have all recently lost someone — or, since this is a small town, know someone who has lost someone, which can be similarly difficult. He eventually takes interest in a rich widow, Majorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), eventually becoming her full-time assistant and maybe-lover.
Now, Majorie is basically the worst person that exists, and it’s because of this that we hate her fairly early on. After starting to let Bernie into her life, it almost looks as if she’s going to undergo the life changing transformation that so many movie characters get to have that will redeem her. But that’s not at all going to happen here. She’s evil and while you can’t really call it a battle of wills — you want Bernie to fight back but he’s too nice to do so — it’s kind of a Pure Good vs. Pure Evil fight to the death.
There are other reviews and websites — IMDb does a good job of this in its plot summary that you’ll see right when you open up the film’s page — that will spoil a major plot point. I’m not going to do that here, as I feel it’s not important. Bernie will win you over with his charm, at some point, and then the plot can do what it wants. It won’t actually matter what happens, because you’ll be so intrigued by this character.
Jack Black’s performance, in particular, was what drew me to this man. He’s so charming that it’s addictive to just watch him. You want to see how he’ll handle every situation that he encounters, you want to see if he’ll eventually snap due to everyone taking advantage of him, and you want to see if he does, in fact, have some sort of fatal flaw. Jack Black is the man driving the ship, and like Bernie, he’s probably washing it, adjusting the sails, and singing as he does it all. If a movie managed to get me saying the I liked Jack Black at the end, it succeeded.
However, if you’re going in hoping that you’ll be seeing Jack Black in every frame, you’ll be disappointed. There are long stretches of time in which “interviews” with the local townspeople are included, which gives us their thoughts on the events that we’ve already just seen, or that will be coming up, or on Bernie himself. These provide the funniest moments of the film, by far, but take away from the hook, which is Black’s performance and the story of his character.
I wasn’t often sure if the film was supposed to make me laugh. Early on, a lot of the audience was laughing but I wasn’t. Perhaps they were charmed more easily than I was. Eventually, I got into it and laughed — not nearly as frequently as they were, but I did laugh — and I think it would be interesting to sit down and watch Bernie again, now that it has won me over, to see if the earlier scenes would be funnier. I still know that some parts won’t be funny to me no matter what, but some might have been humorous and I just overlooked them.
I don’t think this film would have worked without its two lead actors. I’ve already mentioned Jack Black and how he draws us in, but Shirley MacLaine is right there, making us hate her character with a passion. I can’t remember the last time I felt so bad for one character and so much disdain for another. Oh, and Matthew McConaughey is in this for a short time, basically playing the same guy he played in The Lincoln Lawyer. If he decides to stay in that role as long as he played his surfer-dude character, I’d be happy.
Based on the supposedly true story, Bernie is an odd, yet fairly enjoyable film. It is a wonderful career choice for Jack Black, who molds this character and makes you forget all the terrible roles he’s had in the past, for a couple of hours, anyway. Shirley MacLaine is equally good in a role that made me hate her for a while. I didn’t find it terribly funny, but it definitely has its moments and is an interesting experience to sit through. It won me over with its charm.