by David Ashley
Submitted: The Case of the Sunny Mortician. Bernhardt Tiede, an effulgent pillar of the tiny Carthage, TX community, and his admitted murder of Carthage’s legendary old buzzardess, the wealthy widow Nugent. After the debacle was publicized in 1997, Skip Hollandsworth would write an article titled “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas” for Texas Monthly and detail Tiede’s beloved status in the community and the frustration of local DA Danny Buck in prosecuting him. Tiede did, after all, murder an octogenarian under highly incriminating circumstances. Nugent had become so dependent and adoring of Tiede that he had power of attorney over her, access to her bank accounts (which he charitably distributed to the community behind her back), preference over family members (recent will tinkering left Tiede the sole heir to her not immodest fortune), as well as a kind of icky level of intimacy with her. And then there is the curious and hush-hushed tidbit about the 40+ videotapes featuring numerous Carthage males engaged in “misconduct” that were seized from Tiede’s home after the confession – this, btw, is omitted completely from the film (because, I imagine, Bernie is so well-liked). Buck did successfully prosecute him and Tiede has been serving out his life sentence in a Texas prison ever since, visited now and then by doting old Carthage dames, sweets and sweetness in tow.
Richard Linklater adapted Hollandsworth’s article with the writer’s help, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the primary reason was just to give Black a chance to play Tiede (which he does with relish). Bernie is not quite a mockumentary, not quite a dramatization, really just an indulgence in the quirkiness of Bible-thumping, bumble-eff East Texas and that glorious inexorable good will that we’d like to imagine elevates Tiede to the status of archetype. Jack Black does a marvelous job as Tiede, and he never ceases being watchable. It’s funny, because it’s easy to imagine how Black acting like an effeminate goody-two-shoes could wear on a viewer in short order, since Black (no offense) is more of a personality than an actor, getting by for over a decade just being himself. Yet his Bernie is very pleasant to watch from his first moments, singing (or perhaps ‘proclaiming’) a Christian pop tune to himself while cruising his sensible Lincoln through sunny, blank Carthage. And Linklater knows just how to use him, and how to make this story enjoyable (for better or worse). Apropos, the film is enjoyable and likely should not be, framing Linklater as a Blue-Square-level opportunist – not unlike Tiede. Taking advantage just enough, trusting that the good intentions and focus on positivity would prevent true damnation – primarily via some disgusted Carthage citizens who are not thrilled about sensationalizing Nugent’s sordid tale, even for the sake of laughter. It would be nice to imagine that Linklater endeavored to make this his point, his private polemic, but I’m surely seeing what I want.