Bernie is an odd film; an odd story about an odd man. It tells the tale of Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), a funeral director unfailingly described as “nice.” The kind of man who looks you in the eye and listens to everything you say as though it’s the most important thing he’s ever heard. We watch as Bernie falls under the spell of a rich widow (Shirley MacLaine) (or perhaps she under his) and, well, to say anything more would spoil the fun.
This is a true story. Some filmmakers use that as an excuse, using the crutch of “it actually happened” to tell an implausible story unconvincingly. Bernie takes the opposite approach, casting people who knew the real Bernie to serve as talking heads, mixed among actors. The overall effect is an impressive sense of verisimilitude: it’s like watching a documentary with surprisingly well-executed re-enactments. The film provides some insight into its eponymous character, but its chief success lies in the way it captures the essence of a small town, with all its idiosyncrasies and gossip and prejudices; when Bernie’s secret is revealed, the town’s reaction might seem implausible. In the context of this movie, it makes perfect sense.