There may be some unfortunate, real-life Texas circumstances behind director Richard Linklater's "Bernie," but they're a windfall for star Jack Black, who can no longer be dismissed as the furious baby of countercultural comedies.
In director Richard Linklater's droll reworking of the factual material (small-town gay mortician murders wealthy local widow), Black transitions his natural physical agility into actorly acrobatics. He makes Bernie Tiede, a guy with an easy smile and prissy walk, into someone you genuinely like, and just as genuinely mistrust. Linklater, admirably unconcerned about how his film can be categorized, has made a comedy, a drama and most certainly a character study. Bernie has complexity, mystery and personality -- as does the town of Carthage, which finds it odd that Bernie would form a friendship with the newly widowed, perpetually sour, 81-year-old Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine, going for broke), but less odd that he might have killed her.
Using a mix of actors and locals commenting on the ongoing case, Linklater makes "Bernie" as much about small-town America as anything else, embellishing the film with nuanced detail, and driving home one marvelously observed fact about American life: You can be forgiven anything, if people like you enough.
And they like Bernie. Not that he killed anyone. Necessarily. But in the end "Bernie" is a lot less about one murder than it is homespun perversity, adjustable morality and the way Linklater can get such good performances out of nonactors. And Black. And one other cast member who owes his director a big wet kiss: Matthew McConaughey, who plays the showboating Carthage prosecutor out to nail the sweet-natured Bernie for first-degree murder.
PLOT The local undertaker, who turns out to be gay, takes up with a local widow, who turns out to be dead. RATING PG-13 (some violent images and brief strong language)
BOTTOM LINE A triumph for Black and his director, Richard Linklater, both of whom straddle genres with competence, confidence and no shortage of charm.