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Bernie ***

Jack Black, a likeable actor, simply had to play the most likeable man in Carthage, Texas. He is Bernhardt Tiede II, currently in prison yet still loved in Carthage for having been a funeral director of exemplary tact, taste, and Methodist piety. Bernie was always doing good things, as if to reward the living for their future deaths. And while it was suspected that Bernie, a pudgy budgie of a man, was “light in the loafers,” that doesn’t mean the movie will tarnish his rep by talking about gay sex tapes found after his arrest.

As if drawn to his polar opposite, Bernie even sprinkled his benign charm on mean, rich widow Marjorie Nugent. She was like Carthage’s resident Roman, widely hated. After much fun together, Marjorie became possessive and controlling, which led to a bad gun moment and an entertaining trial (rather pointless given Bernie’s fast, weeping confession). Like a chorus of gossips, many amusing locals offer testimony, fondly directed by Texas-rooted director Richard Linklater (Before Sunrise, Dazed and Confused, and Black’s signature hit School of Rock).

Shirley MacLaine squints grimly and chews food compulsively as mean Marj. Matthew McConaughey, as a preening DA, twangs along with down-home accents. But Bernie belongs to Black. Smiling above his big, possibly padded gut, he walks in tidy duck steps, sings hymns and show tunes, and talks sweetly to his “DLOLs” (dear little old ladies). Accepted in Carthage because he made genial conformity an almost angelic calling, Bernie is like a joint project of Frank Capra, the Coen Brothers, and Christopher Guest.

This amusing, patronizing oddity of a film has a good eye and ear and exactly the right star. We can imagine the DLOLs fussing over Black, telling him how they adored him with Kate Winslet in The Holiday. No one else on film has so deftly trimmed the nasal hairs of a corpse. Liberace, as the funeral beautician in The Loved One, would have swooned in envy.

Read the full movie column here.

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