Think of Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love, Will Ferrell in Everything Must Go and, to a lesser extent, Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and a pattern emerges. They're all comic actors who went serious for one role – often brilliantly – more or less flopped, then never did it again.
Directed by indie legend Richard Linklater (Slacker, Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight), Bernie is Jack Black's chance to show that he can really act. But the fact that it was made in 2011 and only just released here in the UK suggests America isn't ready to see the Gulliver's Travels star without him rocking out or urinating on people.
“What you're fixin' to see is a true story,” says an intertitle, although Bernie feels more like a Christopher Guest mockumentary. We're then introduced to the eponymous hero, “about the most popular man in Carthage”, by the townsfolk themselves, who recount his tale in chewy Missouri accents like gossiping neighbours.
In a place where the main causes of death are “are choking on a piece of meat or leaving guns locked and loaded around the house”, Bernie is the beloved undertaker. Giving a lecture on embalming, he tells his students that the corpses should be “relaxed, natural, with a bit of a smile”, and the film maintains a similar tone throughout.
Jack Black as the eponymous hero.
With his fussy little moustache, larger-than-life personality and extravagant generosity, Bernie is a pillar of the community, part George Bailey, part Ned Flanders, charming the DLOLs (dear little old ladies), directing musicals and singing beautiful eulogies in church. When he develops a relationship with rich spinster Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), the townsfolk smell a rat. She has a “nose so high she'd drown in a rainstorm” as one lady puts it, he's probably gay, and no good can come of it.
They're right, of course, and when something terrible does happen the film turns from dark comedy to jaunty drama. But don't let the flighty tone fool you. Though Black and Matthew McConaughhey (as self-regarding DA Danny Buck) turn in perfectly modulated performances, the Carthage chorus is made up of a mixture of actors (including McConaughhey's mum) and real citizens, and those who stay till the end of the credits are in for, if not a shock, then at least a new twist on what they've just seen.
Linklater has form when it comes to experimentation (see revolutionary animation A Scanner Darkly), and Bernie is best thought of as a fascinating exercise in fictionalised truth-telling. Witty, warm and hard to second guess, it won't change your life, but it might change Jack Black's.
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