The quirks of human nature and appeal of simply being nice are examined in Richard Linklater's gentle comedy, based on real-life events in the small East Texas town of Carthage. In a documentary style, the townsfolk introduce us to Bernie (Jack Black), a helpful and kind assistant funeral director. He's especially beloved by the town's older women, and his attributes include enjoying musicals and coming for tea. Bernie even charms Mrs. Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), a wealthy, mean-spirited widow with no friends. Their friendship grows serious — and then something unthinkable happens. Or at least, that's what the cops say; the townsfolk rally 'round Bernie, the sweetest, nicest guy they know.
Texan Linklater clearly has affection for the colorful characters of his home state. (He co-wrote the screenplay with Skip Hollandsworth, who first wrote about Bernie and Mrs. Nugent in a 1998 Texas Monthly piece.) For this film, Linklater hired non-actors to stand in for Carthage citizens, and he gets low-key performances from his stars. (Jack Black hasn't been this likable in years.) It's a fun story, but my one complaint is that Linklater's treatment is almost too laid back. The narrative builds very leisurely, and not having been aware of the real-life events, I never really grasped the intrigue of the tale until the very end. Thus, Bernie, like its protagonist, is a shade too soothing, but also likely to leave you with a smile and a bit of bemusement about how folks are.