Returning from serial independent film success, writer/director Richard Linklater premiered his dark comedy Bernie, starring Jack Black and Matthew McConaughey, yesterday evening. Set to release this April, Bernie explores the true story of Bernie Tiede (Black), a closeted homosexual mortician living in the adorably rural confines of Carthage, Texas. Deeply religious and unrelentingly generous, Bernie finds himself in an unlikely friendship with the recently-widowed Marjorie Nugent (Shirley McLaine). Through a series of vignettes overlaying colorful commentary from local citizens, we watch as Bernie goes from belting out showtunes to finding himself embroiled in a murderous scandal, facing trial against the infamous district attorney Danny Buck Davidson, played hilariously by McConaughey.
In front of a packed 1,200-seat Paramount Theatre in downtown Austin, Linklater, Black, and McConaughey walked SXSW film-goers through the production process. Linklater happened upon the story while leafing through an issue of Texas Monthly and elected to co-write the screenplay with the magazine’s editor, Skip Hollandsworth.
After casting Black and McConaughey, Linklater set out to meet the flesh-and-blood individuals whom his characters would bring to the silver screen. Black recalled conversing with his real-life counterpart — who is now serving a life sentence in a maximum security prison in East Texas — describing Bernie as cheerful and supportive, despite his initial confusion about how a cold-blooded murder could possibly be portrayed humorously. Later, McConaughey quipped that his red-neck-ified rendition of district attorney Davidson, whom he called “a nice guy,” was “understated, if anything.”
The topic notwithstanding, Bernie is at times utterly uproarious. Linklater, a Texas native, had his hometown crowd howling at the SXSW screening, and he was visibly enthused by the audience reception. Indeed, Bernie at times feels like Linklater’s thinly-veiled love letter to the Southern quirkiness. Unsurprisingly, then, it is chock full of comedic gems and Texas sensibility (many of the faux interview footage featured real locals familiar with Bernie and Miss Nugent). It is at its best when it mindfully unites a cast of goofy characters in collective self-mockery during the first and final 30 minutes. Unfortunately, a drifting middle third drags the film down and prevents it from achieving its full potential. Nevertheless, Linklater and crew have delivered a hilariously sinister flick that is sure to tickle even the most serious moviegoer.