Truth is sometimes stranger than fiction, and you don’t have to look further than Bernie to see that this is so.

Based on a true story and inspired by Skip Hollandsworth’s 1998 article in Texas Monthly titled “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas”, this compelling criminal case has been converted into a comedy by writer-director Richard Linklater, who is also known for films like Before Sunset, a Oscar nominated movie and The School of Rock.

Most of us will run from the undertaker like our lives depended on it, but in Carthage, a small town in East Texas, the local mortician Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), is Mr. Popular. The townsfolk trip over themselves to sing his praises as he showers them with extravagant gifts like cars and shops, and put their needs first despite being financially strapped. Bernie is also extremely empathetic towards widows as he resides in a town that is strangely but highly populated with widows. Even after every funeral arrangement, he never fail to pay regular visits to these widows’ houses with flowers and gifts, just to make sure that they are all coping well in life.

In fact, his sainthood in the neighbourhood is practically sealed when he can even be nice to Mrs. Marjorie Nugent, the loathsome but wealthy widow played by veteran actress Shirley MacLaine. So hated is she that when Bernie confessed to killing her, the whole town marveled that he didn’t kill her earlier  and no one felt the least bit sorry for her.

The only exception is Danny Buck, the town’s district attorney, who is duty bound to fight for justice for the late Mrs. Nugent and convict Bernie as a murderer. The question, however, was always what motive(s) Bernie had for killing Mrs. Nugent when they had become such close and constant companions to the extent of holidaying together.

What made Bernie stand out from conventional comedy movies is the intriguing story line. Though the plot seems almost absurd, it’s sobering to recall that the movie is based on actual facts. Bernie is also a “black comedy”, since the movie has its roots in a real-life murder case, and because it stars Jack Black. In fact, the humor is quite understated, which is a refreshing change from the over-the-top turns by the energizer bunny Jack, who has shown remarkable restraint.

With a dedication to accuracy and realism you’d expect more from a documentary than a dramatic feature, the director hired many people from Carthage who actually had contact with Mrs. Nugent and Bernie, whether her hairstylist of 32 years, or a man who cleaned her chimney, to act in the movie. It was really their comments, such as “There’re people in town, honey, that would have shot her for $5,” that made up the bulk of the humour in the movie.

Having earlier collaborated on The School of Rock, Richard Linklater selected Jack Black (voice of Po from Kung Fu Panda) to star as Bernie. While definitely a challenging role for Jack as his current role is vastly different from his usual crazy and wild characters, nonetheless, he still aced his character with his superb acting skills. It’s like watching Jim Carrey in The Truman Show, you get to see the dramatic range of Jack here.

Shirley MacLaine, who won the Oscar for Best Actress for Terms of Endearment in 1984, also did a great job acting as irksome Nugent, yelling at him often and chewing her food in a manner that got on his nerves. Her bossy, demanding and possessive behaviour towards Bernie was simply intolerable and spot on, making the audience really sympathetic to him.

While the gripping story made this an enjoyable film, UrbanWire thinks that the execution of the movie was a bit dry and draggy at times. You almost felt like you could have done with a lot fewer testimonies from the town folks. She was a pill and he was great, we get it… Also, the moviemakers’ slavish devotion to the actual plot meant it lacked the action or drama that modern day audiences have come to expect.

In spite of these small misgivings, and putting aside the discussions of whether morality can be absolute, Bernie is a breath of fresh air in a sea of formulaic rehashing of old movies.

Movie: Bernie
Rating: 3/5
Opens: July 12
Duration: 99 mins
Language: English
Age rating: PG13
Genre: Comedy, Crime

Directed by: Richard Linklater
Cast: Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, Matthew McConaughey