Based on real-life events in Carthage, Texas, “Bernie” showcases Jack Black’s uncanny powers of observation, and director Richard Linklater’s ability to lay on the cynicism so thick you hardly notice it. Black visited with the title character, Bernie Tiede, in prison to study his mannerisms, speech and personality — and effectively became Bernie, albeit looking like the Jack Black we all know so well. If the real Tiede ever entertained thoughts of being immortalized, Black’s depiction must come incredibly (and perhaps uncomfortably) close. At the same time, Linklater and Black work at creating a small niche of darkness, or just a hint of malice, lurking in Bernie’s otherwise absolutely sunny disposition.
Bernie (Black) was Carthage’s most popular mortician and funeral director, though his official position was that of “assistant” undertaker. Bernie could talk the talk of expensive caskets and floral arrangements, spruce up the deceased so they looked better dead, and console their widows, otherwise known as the DLOL (Dear Little Old Ladies). Bernie also had a hand in local theater productions, coached kids’ baseball and was generally so loved that though single, he never had to eat a meal by himself. Then the richest man in town kicked the bucket and it was Bernie’s duty to make sure grieving widow Marjorie (Shirley MacLaine) didn’t lack for sympathetic companionship.