It’s a comedy only in the sense of a burlesque: it’s an expose that acts like it’s deadly serious, except that we’re really making fun of everybody involved for playing their caricatures with such artistic aplomb. Those of us who actually live in East Texas cannot help but feel the sting of such bald, broad farce. The fact that it plays like a documentary, because it really was a true story, makes it stunningly real even as it’s portrayed as grandiosely macabre and laughably parochial. Yes, it’s Hollywood making a farce of the Heartland again, because, well, all of us stupid people out here are duplicitous hicks, if not hypocritical fools. Other than that, we’re so incurably dense that we’re almost cute.
Jack Black does such a magnificently believable job of portraying Bernie, the small-town con man extraordinaire, that we’re almost as incredulous as the unsuspecting townsfolk when we witness his stunningly cold reversal of fortune. He arrives in the little town of Carthage, Texas, working as a mortician (but we now say “funeral director”), and happily instructs students in the fine art of…..deceiving the living into thinking the dead are alive …?
Well, that’s ironic, because that’s how we end up, also. In between times, Bernie is very active in the local Methodist church, where he sings solos in this beautiful, lilting tenor (yes, Jack Black has a lovely singing voice, and were he to play it straight, could easily sing at church funerals anytime). Bernie also coaches a Little League team, and helps people with their taxes. He delivers flowers to recent widows. Everybody thinks the world of him. He just seems so…. nice.
Bernie particularly showers attention on a certain sharp-tongued widow (Shirley MacLaine) who has few friends in the little town, because she’s so…. mean. Bernie helped with her husband’s funeral, then began dropping by to “cheer up” the widow, and before you know it, they’re being seen together about town.
This lady has enough money to travel, and Bernie is happy to accompany her, as well as to operas and stage plays and other cultural events in nearby venues. Bernie even helpfully deals with her broker, a man who becomes suspicious when he doesn’t actually see the widow for several months. Alas, it seems that our beloved Bernie, after listening to her badger him and order him about ceaselessly for yet another day, just snapped.
And shot her. And then hid her in the freezer, because, well, as an undertaker, there was something instinctive in him about her needing a good burial, at some point. He just didn’t know exactly how he was going to accomplish that.
Well, as it turns out, he never had to figure that out, because he got caught. And when he did, the townspeople were surprisingly sympathetic – figured she must have had it coming, somehow. So the trial was moved to another city, and Bernie was convicted – he had, after all, confessed to the sheriff – and is currently serving his prison term, while still singing in the chapel services and cooking for the staff.
Is this guy for real? Well, yeah, and during the credits, we actually get to see him – talking with Jack Black. Well, it seems that Bernie still has the last laugh. “Ah do declare.”
Ronald P. Salfen is interim pastor at St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.