When you see a movie that has Jack Black in it (with the exception of King Kong I suppose) you know just what you're going to get. Some singing, some overconfident bragging, him doing that thing with his eyes, happy ending, we all go home.
The movie is half documentary half narrative feature, based on a true story. Jack Black stars as the titular character, a mortician who is beloved in the small Texas town of Carthage. He befriends a mean old woman named Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) and the two become fast friends, soon going on lavish trips and, before long, Bernie becomes her personal assistant/confidant. But Marjorie grows more and more possessive of Bernie until, one day, he snaps and shoots her four times in the back. The ensuing trial causes a media firestorm as District Attorney Danny "Buck" Davinson (Matthew McConaughey) tries to make a fair trial in a town that aggressively believes Bernie didn't do one thing wrong by shooting her.
Despite the subject matter the movie goes by at a rather breezy pace. It's directed by Richard Linklater, the man behind Dazed and Confused and School of Rock, and in tone it is more similar the former then the latter. It's not really trying to be anything more than it is, and even though it's technically a black comedy, it's rather light watching. It's obviously trying to show the greyness of a case like this, where the community is rallying around the murderer and if a lifetime of good deeds is enough to offset one moment of madness. Honestly though, it doesn't have enough of a backbone going through it to really nail that thesis. It wants to feel ambiguous, but instead feels incomplete.
However, despite it's narrative and tonal flaws, the performances more then make up for it. As I said, half of the movie is filmed with traditional actors while the other is presented by talking heads made up of the real townspeople who knew Bernie and of the case. As stated before, Jack Black gives a hell of a performance as the title character. He's both very funny and incredibly sympathetic, and it's kind of impossible not to be rooting for the guy. It's also a really nice break from his normal frat guy routine to see him not only act as this effeminate, cultured guy but totally nail it. Less front and center but also great is Matthew McConaughey as the district attorney, who give light on the fact that, yeah, even though he's a nice guy Bernie did, in fact, shoot a little old lady in the back. The only problem I had with the performances was that there wasn't enough of them, because the movie kept cutting to the townspeople. The narrative half of the movie was not only funnier but also so much more engaging then the documentary part. It wasn't bad but felt unnecessary and encroached on the stronger aspects of the movie.
That's actually a pretty good way to describe the film as a whole. Nothing in it is bad, but the stuff that's great gets bogged down by all this filler. Jack Black finally gets out of his box, but he's stifled before he can really shine. On the Wicker Scale, which two reviews in I already know is a terrible way to keep score but whatever, it ranks somewhere in the middle, leaning more towards Christopher Lee but with Nicholas Cage staring at those townspeople with his crazy eyes.