Jack Black and Shirley Maclaine star in Richard Linklater's nicely-mounted but ultimately oddly bloodless comedy
We’re all familiar with the clear-cut outrage that follows a heinous crime perpetrated by a dark, twisted monster against a dewy innocent – but what if it’s the other way round? What if someone hugely popular does something terrible to someone widely hated? And what if it’s not in self-defence, or anything virtuous like that, but for petty, self-serving, venal reasons…?
When, in 1996, violence marred the improbable but close friendship between the much-loved funeral home worker Bernie Tiede and wealthy, mean-tempered widow Marjorie Nugent, their neighbours in the small town of Carthage, East Texas knew where their sympathies lay… and it wasn’t with the victim. Richard Linklater turns this strange and grisly true-life story into a nicely-mounted but ultimately oddly bloodless film, with Jack Black and Shirley MacLaine well cast but underused in the leads.
The decision to present the contributions of townspeople – many of them drawn directly from the film’s source article, which ran in the Texas Monthly in 1998 – as interview-style vox pops drains the drama away: they’re too obviously performed to succeed in increasing immediacy, and they’re not funny enough to add verve.
Meanwhile, Black’s performance as Bernie, though diligent, is lacking in layers: we never acquire deeper knowledge of Bernie than did the locals who fell so comprehensively for the charming show that he put on. The film neither seeks nor manages to tell us any more; and its faux-documentary format, presented as it is with too much polish to convince, increases the sense of distance. The film’s low-key humour is intermittently pleasing, but to treat a real murder with this blend of down-home kitsch and light comedy is either a missed dramatic opportunity or a display of questionable taste – possibly both. Linklater had an interesting story here, but unfortunately this work lurks towards the Fast Food Nation end of his oeuvre.
General release from Fri 26 Apr.