04/25/2012 07:23 am ET Updated Jun 25, 2012

Movie review: Bernie

Richard Linklater has made a career of defying expectations, making everything from The Bad News Bears and School of Rock to A Scanner Darkly and now Bernie.

Bernie might be his most unexpected film yet. Based on a true story about events and people in a small Texas town in the mid-1990s, Bernie is a dark joke with a straight face -- and the surprising deadpan in this movie belongs to Jack Black.

Yes, Black, one of the most interesting actors of the past decade or so. Since emerging in High Fidelity and School of Rock, Black seemingly has squandered his talents on films such as Year One, Be Kind Rewind and Gulliver's Travels. But he possesses a compelling presence which resonates with serious material, when he's given the chance to show what he can do. (See Margot at the Wedding for proof.)

In Bernie, he plays Bernhardt Tiede, assistant funeral director in the small Texas town of Carthage. As described by the real residents of Carthage, Bernie was someone who everyone thought the world of -- the kind of guy who made a funeral into a memorable and moving experience, even for those who didn't know the departed.

He sings in church, acts and directs in community theater, visits the sick and has a cheerful word for everyone in town. Yet his social life is something of a mystery -- at least until he befriends the town's richest widow, Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), after the death of her husband. Suddenly, Bernie and Mrs. Nugent are inseparable; she's involved in all of Bernie's activities while traveling the world together.

No one says anything, however, because no one likes Mrs. Nugent, the meanest woman in town. She's alienated her children as well as her neighbors, so there's no one to check up on her or nay-say the things that Bernie and she get involved in.

But she doesn't have the reputation as the meanest woman in town for nothing -- and even the town's nicest guy, Bernie Tiede, has his limits. She finally pushes him too far and, well, that's what the film is about, right?

What gives Bernie its fizz, its kick, its sheer enjoyable weirdness is the oddly engaging give-and-take between Black (a master of contained energy) and MacLaine, who seems to live with a baleful look on her face. Black radiates positive vibes, though you can see the wheels turning as he confronts various obstacles. There's nothing, he seems to say, that can't be fixed with an affirmative attitude and a little bit of prayer.

Bernie proves yet again that we can never know what is going on in the mind of our fellow human beings. They can look pudgy and harmless -- indeed, downright benign -- like Bernie and turn out to be something else altogether.

Beside Black and MacLaine, the other actor who pops up is Matthew McConaughey, a long-time Linklater pal, who plays Danny Buck Davidson, the camera-ready district attorney who goes after Bernie. With a haircut almost as bad as the one he had in We Are Marshall, McConaughey seems to be working too hard, particularly in comparison to the delightfully deadpan MacLaine and the delicious Black, whose performance practically makes him look like a Zen priest compared to McConaughey.

Bernie never quite goes where you expect it to -- unless you read up on the story ahead of time. I'd suggest against it; go in with a fresh eye and you'll appreciate this completely fresh little movie.

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