The Reel: ‘Bernie’ is a fresh, dark comedy


Ben Conniff

SPOILER ALERT: I went over to Netflix on Sunday night looking for a study break. I scoured the instant queue packed with movies I’m way behind on. I found one called “Bernie,” a dark comedy starring Jack Black that tells the true story of a beloved small-town mortician who befriends a widow, and after he kills her, tries to create the illusion that she’s still alive.

I remember seeing “Bernie” make its rounds in the awards circuit last season, garnering nominations at the Golden Globes and Critics Choice for Jack Black’s titular performance. 

I was interested in looking into the movie, but never quite interested enough to put it at the top of my must-watch list. After overlooking it on a few rainy days, I decided to give “Bernie” a chance.

Director Richard Linklater (“School of Rock,” “Dazed and Confused”) crafts a captivating true-life crime story that never loses its sense of humanity, even in the funniest scenes.

It’s also bolstered by a strong cast, including what is possibly Jack Black’s finest character performance ever.

You won’t see a whole lot of Hollywood glitz in “Bernie”, which helps maintain that sense of humanity. The film is presented “mockumentary” style, similar to the format used in shows like “The Office.”

Interviews with the townspeople are presented intermittently to move the narrative along. Aside from the presence of Matthew McConaughey, Shirley MacLaine and Jack Black, anyone else in the film could be your next-door neighbor. It’s that warm, hometown appeal that makes “Bernie” such an easy film to get into. 

Once it welcomes you with open arms, the movie invites you to stay for supper thanks to its tremendous acting performances.

Matthew McConaughey does his best to tone down (and to some extent, make a caricature of) his Mick Haller character from “The Lincoln Lawyer.” Again harnessing some of the down-home charm he brings to every role, McConaughey makes the part his own and comes off perfect as prosecuting attorney Danny Buck.

Shirley MacLaine isn’t given much to say as the steely Marjorie Nugent, but her demeanor is consistent for the character, and when she does speak, it usually isn’t nice. MacLaine is so convincing that by the time Bernie pulls the trigger, you might empathize with him.

Speaking of Bernie, Jack Black turns in his finest performance since “School of Rock,” if not of his entire career.

Through his actions, reactions, and the stories told by the townspeople, I felt like I really got to know Bernie and exactly the kind of person he was. Black had me hooked from the opening scene where he does a demonstration for some college kids on how to prepare a body for a funeral.

Black’s trademark enthusiasm feels right at home with this character, but he’s also able to flex his dramatic muscles and maintains a nice sense of humanity. He’s never cheesy in a way that feels out of place with the character.

In the end, “Bernie” is really as much of a character study as it is a true-crime tale. With grounded performances from the entire cast and a captivating story bolstered by “mockumentary”-style presentation, I deem “Bernie” guilty of providing fresh, funny entertainment that’s worth your attention. Look for it on Netflix.