A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Bernie is an eccentric, entertaining, and sometimes disturbing dark comedy based on the real-life murder of wealthy Texas widow Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine). Jack Black stars, but this isn't one of his mainstream comedies; Bernie's story is told with a mix of seriousness and levity, a tone that may be hard for tweens and under to process, given that it all actually happened. There's a bit of swearing (including very infrequent uses of words like "s--t" and "f--k") and scenes of cruelty (emotional, with one character needling and bullying another).
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What's the story?
It wouldn't be stretching the truth to say that Marjorie Nugent (Shirley Maclaine) -- a widow with lots of money but few friends -- was universally considered difficult by her Carthage, Texas, neighbors. When Marjorie's powerful husband died, the person who wound up comforting her the most was a man universally considered a good egg: assistant funeral director Bernie Tiede (Jack Black). Their friendship quickly became an oddity; how could two people so different -- not only was she meaner, but she was also much older than Bernie -- get along so well? But soon, they began spending most of their free time together, shopping, traveling, and setting gossips afire. So when Marjorie ended up missing and everyone learned that Bernie might have been responsible, the town was spun on its head. BERNIE, based on real-life events and featuring many Carthage denizens, takes a look at the scandalous circumstances that were chronicled in the pages of Texas Monthly by Skip Hollandsworth, a journalist who co-wrote the movie's screenplay.
Is it any good?
This Richard Linklater-directed movie based on true events, and featuring interviews with those who actually knew the key players, is an offbeat concoction that mystifies and mesmerizes. It makes you privy to the frailties and eccentricities of human relationships. Things like this do actually happen -- a fact delivered powerfully thanks to the inclusion of the townspeople of Carthage, who not only are familiar with what happened but can also remember what it was like to live through it. Their opinions, which they share freely, are uproarious and insightful. (That said, there are a lot of them, and watching one after another share their thoughts sometimes feels like an over-long parade.)
MacLaine can do no wrong, of course, and her Marjorie is both horrible and human. But the film is Black's; although he sometimes goes right to the edge of caricature on this one, he manages not to fall right off the cliff, delivering a performance that, taken as a whole, manages to make you feel what it would have been like to have been one of Carthage's observers of this odd tragedy: conflicted, compassionate, and deeply conscious of the strangeness of life.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the movie's message. What's the takeaway? Is there meant to be one?
Can you believe that this story is actually based on real-life events? How accurate do you think it is? Why might filmmakers stretch or change the facts?
What makes Bernie a sympathetic character -- both to the people in his town and to audiences?
- In theaters: May 4, 2012
- On DVD or streaming: August 21, 2012
- Cast: Jack Black, Matthew McConaughey, Shirley MacLaine
- Director: Richard Linklater
- Studio: Millennium Entertainment
- Genre: Comedy
- Run time: 104 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG-13
- MPAA explanation: some violent images and brief strong language
- Last updated: September 21, 2019
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