You might think if you’ve seen one Jack Black movie, you’ve seen them all.
He’s always wild and crazy, a devilish imp of a man who remains tapped into the anarchic glee of mischievous boys everywhere while bringing just enough edge to his roles for adults to find him engaging as well.
What if Black had more to offer?
Could it be possible that he has the ability to play ambiguous, even morally complex roles? The astounding answer is “yes,” and in his new movie “Bernie,” Black dives right in. He obliterates the memory of his recent epic failure “Gulliver’s Travels” with a performance that is so multi-dimensional it will reinvent people’s perceptions of him.
Based on a bizarre true story from small-town Texas, “Bernie” is a mix of character comedy and true-crime story in which Black plays the title character, Bernie Tiede. Bernie is a funeral director who mysteriously never dated women his own age but befriended all the widows he dealt with, particularly played by Shirley MacLaine who was the meanest – yet richest – widow in town.
That prompts speculation about whether Bernie was a closet homosexual, having an affair with MacLaine’s character, or merely a man with no sexual interests. When this widow turns mean he takes her out with a shotgun blast. But since she had named him her new sole beneficiary in her will he covers up the death to collect the money.
He begins living large with her cash, but he also gives oodles away to people suffering from foreclosure woes, hunger and other hardships.
Ultimately, the film leaves many moral questions up to viewers’ opinions. Did Bernie’s extreme generosity mitigate the murder and ensuing deceptions? Was he truly a Christian, or just a savvy con man? Was he homosexual or straight? While these issues are too complex for children and younger teens, the film should provide fascinating fodder for conversation for thoughtful adult believers.
Co-writer/director Richard Linklater, who previously worked with Black on “School of Rock,” handles all these complex issues with ease, drawing out what is perhaps Black’s best performance ever. In addition, we get the welcome return of Shirley MacLaine at her sauciest and a completely against-type performance by McConaughey as the DA seeking to bring Bernie down.
An array of genuine small-town people who knew the real-life Bernie are woven throughout in confessional interviews snippets adding both realism and charm to the proceedings.