'Bernie': Black comedy contains a chorus of witnesses ✭✭✭

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'Bernie'

Jack Black stars in "Bernie." (May 16, 2012)

At the opening of director and co-writer Richard Linklater's East Texas shuffle "Bernie," the small-town mortician played with unusual restraint by Jack Black conducts a master class in how to prepare a body for a first-class open-casket funeral, going into the niceties of proper position of the resting head, "neither star-gazing nor navel-gazing." The mouth, he adds, should be "relaxed, natural, with a little bit of a smile."

And that's the movie all over. It's an easygoing black comedy about an unlikely murderer and the woman he murdered, an oilman's widow played by Shirley MacLaine. The film may not be enough for some audiences accustomed to, or plowed under by, American comedies of a more bombastic approach.

The Austin, Texas-based director, whose works include "Slacker," "Dazed and Confused," "Before Sunrise," "Before Sunset" and, most recently, the beguiling"Me and Orson Welles,"offers a portrait of Carthage, Texas, and environs, and a suggestion of what the relationship between Bernie Tiede and Marjorie Nugent must have been like. Linklater's a glider, not a pile-driver; he hangs back when other directors prefer to bore in.

The facts are on the record, and were beautifully spun into a Texas Monthly magazine story in 1998, written by Skip Hollandsworth (Linklater's co-writer here). Tiede, the 40ish assistant director of a Carthage funeral home, confessed to the killing of Nugent. As Nugent's sole heir to a fortune, Tiede could've had millions. But instead he gave in to the momentary satisfaction of shooting a mean, covetous 81-year-old — his employer, confidant, constant companion and something-or-other — in the back four times.

The town couldn't believe it. Even if they believed he did it — he did in fact confess — the townsfolk who knew and loved Bernie from his church vocals or his amateur productions of "The Music Man" thought, well, give the fellow a break. She was a snake.

Matthew McConaughey plays the town's district attorney, and the actor's mother has been enlisted by Linklater to portray one of the town's many gossips and chimer-inners — a mix of actors and actual eyewitnesses, they're like the historical witnesses in "Reds," piney-woods Texas style. The generous screen time afforded this Greek chorus of observers is both the film's strength and its limitation. Black and MacLaine's dynamic, testy one minute, tender the next, remains a kind of composite sketch of a relationship.

But as composite sketches go, it's a good one. When Black's simply singing along to "Love Lifted Me" in his car, or doe-eyeing his way through a number from "Guys and Dolls," you have a singing actor of extremely wily comic chops. But he's playing a man who could only be himself to a certain degree (Gay? Straight? Asexual? Linklater's cagey about the answer) and Black's physical embodiment of Bernie never foists a caricature onto the proceedings. I'll let the movie tell you if Tiede got away with murder or not.

mjphillips@tribune.com

'Bernie' -- 3 stars

MPAA rating: PG-13 (for some violent images and brief strong language)

Running time: 1:44

Opens: Friday

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