Sometimes a story comes along that any self-respecting studio exec would throw out for being ridiculous, far-fetched, too unlikely to be believed. Except when it happens to be true. 'Bernie' is such a story, a tale so thought-provoking, bizarre and completely entertaining that the combined star wattage of Jack Black, Matthew McConaughey and Shirley MacLaine cannot outshine it.
The story is one of everyday folk - livin', lovin' and prayin' in lil' old Carthage, Texas. In their midst was Bernie Tiede, whose occupation of funeral director doesn't do justice to his role in the town - radio broadcaster, song and dance man at the local drama society, and all round good egg, relied upon and adored by all. He had a particular way with the 'DLOLs' - the dear little old ladies - whom he would comfort in grief, and accompany to the salon.
One such lady was Marjorie Nugent, not the most loved of doyennes - in fact, "her nose was so high, she'd have drowned in a rainstorm" says one resident. "She was born old," says another. How do we know this? Because director Richard Linklater included the real-life inhabits of Carthage, speaking directly to camera in his film. There is a shared sensibility between 'Bernie' and 'Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil', both in this mixture of fiction and true anecdote told by real people, and the potential for maleficence in these lush, colourful surroundings.
Because it didn't end happily for Bernie and Marjorie. After she was widowed, he brought out of her skin, went on holiday with her, helped her spend her money on holidays, clothes, hairdos, and him. In return, she came to depend on him entirely, jealously, tyrannically demanding his time and exclusive devotion. Until one day, he picked up a gun, shot her in the back, and stored her in the deep-freeze of her home for nine months.
That's when this already unlikely tale got really weird, but I won't ruin the rest of it, because there is so much to enjoy in this non-judgemental slice of deep southern life. No wonder director Linklater's eyes gleamed when writer Skip Hollandsworth brought him his account, based on an article he spotted in a Texan newspaper, while Bernie was awaiting trial.
Many of the incidental scenes are glorious in themselves, for example when Bernie visits a champion wood cutter, plying his trade. "I wake up with an idea, and I cut away everything that's not that idea," he explains slowly, while Bernie looks on sagely.
Hilariously hammy and yet underplayed is Matthew McConaughey, once again proving that his professional life away from rom-com land is a rich fount, with a superb comic timing and his accent broad in its native glory, as he describes the corpse "frozen like a popsicle".
And at the centre of it all, Shirley MacLaine as indomitable as ever as the tragic tyrant Marjorie Nugent, and a revelatory Jack Black, both appealing and unreadable. I can't promise that Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine OR Matthew McConaughey won't make better films independently, but I doubt they'll make another one this good together.