Director Richard Linklater's terrific new film, Bernie, unleashes actor Jack Black from his Kung Fu Panda pajamas only to find - lest we'd forgotten - that he's a really good actor.
Bernie is based on the true story of an unlikely couple whose platonic but devoted pairing ends in deception and murder. Black plays the title character, Bernie Tiede, a beloved assistant funeral director in Carthage, Texas, who can deliver a eulogy with Billy Graham's sincerity and "Amazing Grace" with Ethel Merman's chops. The local widows adore him, especially the most despised of the lot, Marjorie Nugent, played with a veneer of crusty toxicity by Shirley MacLaine. And when the two blithely team up for spa treatments, European vacations, and opera in the Big D, all on Marjorie's dime, tongues start a-wagging.
Black slyly underplays the flamboyant elephant in the room: Bernie's ambiguous sexual orientation, which may have been how the real Bernie played it in his small Texas town. Despite the pinkie ring, lead roles in community theater musicals, and flair for drapery, his likability negates any of the locals' homophobic qualms. He radiates just enough ambivalence to make his relationship with Marjorie credible. But when she starts reining in Bernie's boundaries, he revolts against her tightened leash with four bullets in her back. Enter the grandstanding District Attorney, oozing molasses-like Southern charm in the persona of Matthew McConaughey.
What lifts Linklater's movie a notch above other comedic film noirs is his use of tactics more common in documentary filmmaking. Dozens of real Carthage residents lend their stories and loopy personalities to the mix, and even play themselves in the climactic courtroom scenes. They resemble some of the characters populating the central pet cemetery in Errol Morris's classic documentary Gates of Heaven, season the movie with equal parts vinegar and cayenne pepper, and are funny to boot. And if you stay for the credits, you'll be rewarded with more of their regional philosophy and a clip of Jack Black visiting the real Bernie Tiede, studying the man who he would eventually indelibly portray.