Shirley MacLaine

Photo courtesy of Castle Rock Entertainment.

When one looks back on the work of Jack Black, there’s a tendency for Black to come across as irritating. After all, his work is often one-note, loud and abrasive, and even when Black manages to tame his act into something recognizably human, it can still get stale quickly. However, “Bernie” represents something entirely different for Black, his first portrayal of a real-life figure, and it makes for the best performance of his career.

Inspired by an article in Texas Monthly, “Bernie” tells the story of Carthage, Texas’ most beloved resident, Bernie Tiede (Jack Black). Bernie has a habit of befriending local widows, but his relationship with the notoriously acidic Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) becomes something much more parasitic and needy than simple friendship, until Bernie finally snaps under the weight of Nugent’s demands and murders her. It’s here that District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey) gets involved, determined to convict Bernie for a crime that all of Carthage refuses to admit he committed.

“Bernie” director Richard Linklater has worked in almost every genre at this point in his eclectic career, but “Bernie” is one of his finest films, an unapologetically black-hearted examination of what drives a gentle man like Bernie to murder. The film moves at a quick, easy pace, but what makes it stand out is how Linklater completely understands how small-town Texas really works — the social ebbs and flows, the barrage of colloquialisms and the deeply entrenched beliefs about how things should be. It’s the authenticity of the small details that gives “Bernie” its unique sense of humor. Linklater layers in interviews with Carthage residents, portrayed flawlessly by the actors of the film.

With the titular role, Jack Black has a very hard line to walk, keeping his character sympathetic without neglecting to acknowledge the gravity of his mistakes. Black’s performance lacks his usual abrasive nature, and he portrays Bernie with a gentle charisma and hilarious falsetto voice that makes it very clear why the entire town of Carthage is drawn to him. It’s a strong, unusual performance from Black, especially as Bernie is ravaged by the anguish stemming from his crime.

Matthew McConaughey leads a strong supporting cast with his playful, bewildered performance, and Shirley MacLaine is wonderful as the stubborn, crotchety Mrs. Nugent.

At this point, Richard Linklater could make just about any film he wanted, and it would probably be entertaining. His strength for capturing an infectious, nostalgic sense of time and place is undeniable, and his actors are never wasted or underused. “Bernie” is a film that showcases Linklater at his best and a truly hilarious slice of Texas life, one that every native Texan will undoubtedly enjoy.

Printed on Friday, April 27, 2012 as: Small town murder takes on big screen

Actor Jack Black arrives for the screening of his film “Bernie,” at AMC Loews 19th Street, Monday, April 23, 2012 in New York.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

In Richard Linklater’s “Bernie,” Jack Black plays title character Bernie Tiede, a real-life Carthage, Texas, resident who was driven to murder by his increasingly parasitic relationship with local widow Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine). Black completely and totally embodies Bernie, and much of the schtick found in his film career disappears here in favor of something much more human and likeable.

The Daily Texan participated in a roundtable interview with Jack Black during last month’s SXSW Film Festival.

The Daily Texan: How did you get involved with this role and what kind of preparation went into it?
Jack Black: You know, Rick [Linklater] was talking about it for years. It was something that he was thinking about doing for years, and then we were talking about doing “School of Rock 2,” we were working on that, trying to figure out how to do it, and we never could crack the nut to get it right. So he was like, “You know, there is something I’d like to do now, this ‘Bernie’ movie that I’ve been working on.” So I read it, and I was struck by its originality and dark humor, something I’d never really dipped my toe into before, this level of darkness. Really, I would have done anything because I love Rick and wanted to work with him again.

DT: Some people have been saying that they think it’s an ‘old person’s movie.’ Do you agree?
Black: Is that what the campaign is saying? An old person’s movie? If anything, I think it’s got a real punk rock sensibility. I think some of the rebellious youth will be more into it. Some of the older folks might be ... It’s hard to say. Maybe no one will like it.

DT: Did you, as an actor, get as exhausted taking care of Shirley MacLaine as Bernie did with Mrs. Nugent?
Black: Did I get as exhausted as Bernie taking care of Shirley MacLaine? That’s a real loaded question! (laughs) Of course not. I did get into the role. We inhabit our characters. We... Actors. (laughs) I got into it, she got into it. She was in character a lot in between takes; we’d stay in there. I was her servant at times, taking care of her needs and shielding her from the prying eyes of the outside world and making sure she was comfortable and all her needs were met. Was it as hard for me? No, obviously not. I never had flashes of “Leave me alone! Let me out of here!”

DT: Can you talk about the film’s Texas setting and how that affected your portrayal of Bernie?
Black: The locations were so important to Rick. He was so familiar with this story. He had visited Carthage and went to the trial. He saw when the verdict was brought down. So he painstakingly recreated that locale in Bastrop County. There were a lot of similarities to the location. It just felt good to know that it was accurate. I felt like I was in good hands. Was it important? Yeah, definitely. It wouldn’t have been the same if we were on some Hollywood studio lot. It felt like I was ... immersion acting.

DT: You have a background in rock, but much of your musical contribution to “Bernie” was in hymns. Did you enjoy doing that?
Black: I loved it. Loved those songs. Graham [Reynolds], the guy that was in charge of the music, was instrumental in that I went over to his house and jammed a lot. We listened to tons of gospel, and this next Tenacious D album is a gospel album. (laughs) That’s not true. But I could definitely see it creeping into my future music work. There’s some great untapped music there.

DT: You got to meet Bernie. Did he charm you in his own way?
Black: I was charmed. I could see why he was the most loved man in town. And he was the most-loved man in the prison, as far as I could see. Everybody loves Bernie. He’s there, leading the Bible study and teaching people how to cook gourmet meals. He’s just active. He’s a caring person, and it can affirm our feeling about the story. He was a basically good person that had a bad day.

Printed on Friday, April 27, 2012 as: Jack Black delves into darkness behind 'Bernie' character

Funny man Jack Black and Austin director Richard Linklater visited the Paramount Theater to show a benefit screening of the new film “Bernie.” All proceeds went to aid the Bastrop fire relief effort.

“Bernie,” starring Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine and Matthew McConaughey, details the life of a beloved funeral director in Carthage, Texas who forms an unlikely friendship with the town’s richest widow.

Real-life funeral home owner Carlton Shamburger said he came to the premier to see his business on the big screen.

“I actually own the funeral home that the true story is based upon,” Shamburger said. “They used the outside of our funeral home for filming. Not the inside of course. We didn’t give out names because we are everyday people and this [is] Hollywood, but our family is just happy to help out such a great cause.”

He said the film is largely dry humor from a different angle.

Linklater said he decided to open up the screening, originally intended for the crew, to the public immediately after hearing the news of the fires.

Linklater said that parts of Bastrop have been destroyed, but there is still hope for recovery. He said he hopes to help the recovery effort with this philanthropic measure and that he would love to film in Bastrop again in the future.

“The film is kind of this really weird memorial in a way. A memorial to Bernie,” Linklater said. “The mysterious power of film can do anything. We only hope that we can help enough to rebuild Bastrop.”

Linklater answered the majority of questions during the question and answer session following the screening. Black said he was sympathetic for the victims and their families.

“It really is no problem for us to do this to help Bastrop out. It was just the right thing to do,” Black said. “I feel so bad for the victims and the families and hope that this helped enough to make a difference.”

Many people at the event expressed sincere appreciation for the efforts of Linklater and Black. One hundred percent of proceeds from the event went to Bastrop Emergency Food Pantry, Heart of Pines Volunteer Fire Department and Friends of the Lost Pines State Parks.

“It’s great to have them do this for Bastrop. Being from there, it really is a sentimental thing for me,” said Bastrop resident Roger Basquette. “I mean it makes sense. It is [Linklater’s] hometown, and I guess we all support our own.”