Bernie (Jack Black) is a small town treasure. A relentlessly cheery 40 something with a big belly full of warm feelings and good intentions. As the local undertaker Bernie is known to everyone in town, and in performing his self described “service to the deceased” he had no peer. With his eye for detail and determination to ensure a dignified ceremony for all.
It is at one such event that Bernie encountered Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), a joyless and perpetually grumpy curmudgeon seemingly destined to die unloved and alone.
And exceedingly wealthy. But Bernie cannot allow this to happen. After early resistance he gradually endears himself to Marjorie, breaking down barriers and forging a tentative alliance that eventually grows into a reliance on Marjorie’s part. They travel together, Bernie helps with the affairs and generally becomes the right hand man.
People in the town wonder if Bernie is a granny chaser, confusing given that many have already assumed he is gay. Regardless of this the mismatched duo soldier on. Holidays. Lunches. Opera. Bernie organises them all, and initially Marjorie attends with him. But as a leopard cannot change its spots, happiness isn’t something Marjorie seems accustomed to. Nor comfortable maintaining.
Until one day – and here’s the real SPOILER part – Bernie shoots Marjorie four times in the back and plonks the corpse in a freezer…
That’s the story part. The film plays itself as mock doco of sorts, with genuine comments from real locals interspersed with the interpretations of the cast and filmmakers.
Bernie is painted as if he is the nicest killer on earth this side of Slaughter-me Elmo, and Jack Black’s effervescent performance certainly does endear him to all. In fact upon hearing of his charges the community banded together to vow that no jury would find him guilty, to the point where the trial was moved to another state.
So here’s my problem. While the film seems to take some liberties and make some assumptions as to the events around Marjorie’s death, it does not pretend that Bernie didn’t admit to culpability. What it does do is portray it like he had no other option… No option but to shoot an elderly woman in the back. Four times. Then hide the body and spend the better part of a year covering up the truth. While spending the old lady’s money freely and liberally.
The film even pains district attorney Danny Buck (Mathew McConaughey) as a villain due to his efforts to have Bernie found guilty.
Now as far as I could see Bernie had plenty options; discontinue any relationship with Marjorie once her settings switched back to ‘bitch mode’. Surely the were dozens of elderly women that he could befriend and help? And if the badgering and belittling grew too tiresome;
1/ stop spending her money
2/ lay down the law and threaten to leave
4/ at least don’t shoot an elderly woman in the back four times and cover up your murder.
Look play it how you like. Some people are aggravating and hard to live with. Some people are depressing to be around, especially for someone so effortlessly cheery. I fail to see how this somehow justifies their death, and a film that takes great pains to cinematically exonerate such an action. I can see with only a few subtle tweaks how Bernie could come across as an opportunistic greedy man hiding behind a friendly facade, out to get an old woman’s money.
Bernie might be the nicest murderer currently imprisoned. But that makes him no less a murderer, even if this film strives to rewrite moral history on his behalf.
Final Rating – 7 / 10. An interesting – if flawed conceit – and Jack Black’s best performance since High Fidelity make it interesting. They don’t make it right. Proving Bernie isn’t in the same league as Charles Manson doesn’t automatically make him Ghandi… or Oprah.