We are first introduced to Mr. Bernie Tiede (played by Jack Black) when he shows a group of students learning the mortician trade how to cosmetically prepare a body for an open casket funeral. Any squeamish audience members may be ready to pack it in right there, but viewers who persist will discover the film has far more disquieting information to impart than just the depiction of an undertaker comfortable with his job.
Based on a true story, the movie unfolds in a mockumentary style, meaning it pretends to be a documentary by using interviews (mostly with actors, although some are people who did know the real life Bernie) to supply the narrative. As the townsfolk begin to describe the Louisiana native who moved to the East Texas town of Carthage to take a job as an assistant funeral director, there glowing complements are tinged with a hint of foreboding because they all talk of him in the past tense.
Charismatic, conscientious, and kind to a fault, the slightly effeminate man has no problem fitting into the small community. He’s a great gospel singer in the church choir, a popular member of the local drama club, a sincere casket salesman, and has a gift for details that makes any funeral service a special event—one that you almost look forward to. But what he does best is taking care of the DLOL (Dear Little Old Ladies). And in his business there is no shortage of grieving widows thankful for a little tender loving care.
It is at the memorial service for her late husband that Bernie first meets Marjorie Nugent (played by Shirley MacLaine). Arguably the wealthiest woman in Carthage, she is also the nastiest, meanest and most despised citizen. Perhaps it is because she presents such a formidable challenge that Bernie decides he wants to be the one to crack this tough nut. Or maybe it’s just the money. Whatever the reason the charming mortician takes it upon himself to befriend the friendless Marge.
Amazingly a relationship does develop between these two opposites. In no time Bernie is her personal assistant, financial consultant, travel companion and soul beneficiary of her will. At first it appears the thirty-plus man has found a whole new creature inside the testy, almost 80-year-old. But then Marge’s old habits creep back and soon she is emotionally manipulating him while monopolizing all his time. As it turns out, it is Mrs. Nugent that cracks the benevolent Bernie.
Although the film’s promotional materials do not try to keep the eventual murder a secret, it still seems to come as a surprised when it occurs. Suddenly any amusement derived from watching the cranky old bat batter the good-natured undertaker dies. But the movie still continues to take a humorous approach to the remainder of this morbid tale.
Billed as a black comedy, Bernie does deliver great performances for those appreciative of this genre. (Both Black and MacLaine have received award nominations.) With the quirky characters (including Matthew McConaughey as a hotshot DA) and oddball facts, it is little wonder this crime garnered the attention of moviemaker Richard Linklater. However, a smattering of course language, the use of a sexual expletive, and a casual attitude about death and murder may have families feeling this production no laughing matter.