“You don’t want to turn grief tragically into comedy,” winks the titular mortician as he expertly powders and primps a classroom corpse at the start of Bernie, an uncertainly antic case history that never achieves pathos, only shticky (Jack) Black farce. Lurching from small-town satire to cheap laugh-at-the-rubes cartoonishness, Richard Linklater’s surprisingly shapeless true-crime tale is most successful when its chorus of townspeople—portrayed by both pros and actual residents of the Carthage, Texas setting—spin their theories, in one- or two-shots, about why sweet-natured assistant funeral director Bernie Tiede (Black, with a stubby mustache, sandals, and high-waisted pants) became the steady companion of rich, preternaturally nasty widow Marjorie Nugent (a flinty but two-dimensional Shirley MacLaine), and how he came to put her in a garage freezer with four bullets in her back.
The common folks bring the vernacular (scorn for “cousin-countin’ rednecks” in the next county), but also hint at Linklater’s presumed theme—that because Bernie, a pillar of the community in the westernmost edge of the Bible Belt, looked after grieving old women, threw himself into local theater and charitable work, and never had a bad word for anyone, Carthaginians closed ranks around him when Margie’s body was discovered, most unable to conceive that their pious neighbor could possibly be gay, let alone that he had coldly offed his meal ticket: “It’s not like he shot her five times.”
But the screenplay by Linklater and journalist Skip Hollandsworth never creates a convincing context for the odd, circumstantially chaste relationship between Bernie and his sugar mama, and while Black gets some stray laughs crooning “Beautiful Dreamer” and gospel standards instead of his usual rock parodies, he often projects a trace of smarm when something deeper is demanded. (He doesn’t produce crocodile tears when Bernie breaks down on the stand in his trial, but shakes his shoulders and covers his dry face, TV sketch-style.) In support, Matthew McConaughey, as the county’s grandstanding DA, gives the game away when he hectors Bernie for accompanying Margie to New York to see “Les Mizzer-a-bless”; Linklater’s Houston and Austin roots don’t inoculate him from razzing East Texas hicks as crudely as a Yankee would.
Bernie has a few moments of visual wit, as when MacLaine sits primly with Black beneath a mammoth stone wall full of big-game trophy heads, but it fails where the broader (but far more emotionally resonant) I Love You Phillip Morris thrived. Bernie veritably licks his lips when chatting up a rugged chainsaw sculptor or hot cruise-ship attendant, but his gayness resides mostly, and skittishly, in Black’s mincing walk or brio in choreographing The Music Man. Despite a concluding clip of Black conferring with the real Bernie Tiede in prison, Linklater isn’t sufficiently interested in the case’s elements of class and cultural envy, or what it might indicate about the pathology of the Bible Belt closet.