Shirley MacLaine has one of the greatest filmographies of any living actresses. She’s worked for directors like Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, and Hal Ashby, and starred opposite men like Jack Lemon, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Michael Caine, and John Forsythe. She’s been making great films since the 1950s, and while no one is going to claim that it’s on the same level as The Apartment or Irma la Douce or Gambit, her work in Bernie shows that she’s still got it.
Carthage is known as the best small town in Texas, and Bernie (played by Jack Black) is widely regarded as its most popular and beloved resident. He sings in the church choir, participates in most of the local plays, and he gets along well with everyone. But he gets along best with the little old ladies of the town. His day job as an assistant funeral director puts him in the lives of people under the worst of circumstances, where his skills as a people person help make the grief easier to bear. And his kindness doesn’t stop when he funeral is over, because he often visits recent widows to bring flowers or gift baskets to show he’s still thinking of them. People may occasionally question his sexual orientation, but never his standing as a genuinely nice person.
If Carthage has an anti-Bernie, then it would have to be Marjorie (Shirley MacLaine). She’s about as selfish as they come, running the town bank with an iron fist and a cold heart, and even her own family members have stopped talking to her after a lawsuit between her and her children. About the only one who could stand to be around her (and the only one that she could stand) was her husband, but when he died, she was all alone with her extraordinary wealth. She probably would have preferred it that way, but Bernie’s personality and post-funeral persistence somehow managed to break through her shell. They quickly became casual friends and then travel companions, and were soon inseparable. But Marjorie’s selfish bossyness quickly overpowered Bernie’s kindhearted serving nature, and she began to take advantage of him. He was too nice to stand up to her, but even the nicest man in the world has a breaking point.
The film is based on a true story, and is shot in a style that is half narrative and half pseudo-documentary. Interspersed with scenes in which the story plays out, we see interviews with the townspeople praising Bernie, disparaging Marjorie, and sharing small-town gossip. It’s very funny and thoroughly enjoyable, although there were a couple of times that the interview scenes felt like they were starting to become a little repetitive. There are a lot of opportunities for Jack Black to showcase his singing abilities, often in the form of hymns in church or at funerals, or showtunes in town plays, and this adds both to the comedy and authenticity of the film, but it also lends to its absurdity. The movie is not subtle in any way, and often goes over the top in everything that it does, but most of the time it has the intended effect of creating a charming witticism that avoids disaster and ends up with just the right degree of funny.