As titular character Bernie Tiede, Black is so suited it’s scary. The scene is late ’90s Carthage, Texas, and Bernie is probably the most popular person in the town of 6,500. And his popularity actually escalates after he shoots mean old widow Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) in the back. In fact, the swishy singing undertaker receives emphatic requests by the elderly to, one day, come and “cosmeticize” their corpses, though he’s serving a life sentence.
Based on a 1998 article in the Texas Monthly by co-screenwriter Skip Hollandsworth, “Bernie” is a true story. That truth is evident by the onslaught of interviews with Carthaginians (actors and nonactors, scripted and unscripted), who heap nothing but praise on Bernie … and an equal amount of scorn on his victim, the late Mrs. Nugent, the town’s richest and cheapest resident.
The only way that dogged DA Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey) can get a trial that is not prejudiced in Bernie’s favor is to change the venue. Otherwise, the accused’s beloved Carthaginians would be happy to let him continue “cosmeticizing,” performing/producing local musicals, advising boy scouts and warming up to the widows at his gospel song-fest funerals.
Under the near-documentary-style direction of Richard Linklater, Black has the impossible task of making a murderer lovable. He does it delightfully. We leave the theater feeling not too good about ourselves for enjoying what is literally a Black comedy.