I quite honestly didn't know that this was based on a true story until the very end of the film.
Ok, now that that's out of the way, I want to talk about this film from a few different angles.
I don't know if I can adequately express how nice it was to see Jack Black actually acting. As in doing honest-to-God character work. Like Robin Williams and Jim Carrey before him, Mr. Black seems to have realized that he can only push his particular brand of schitck so far and the time has come to grow as a performer or get out.
We see in the end credits a brief mute clip of Black meeting with the real Bernie in prison and it's pretty clear that the characterization we see on screen is rooted in the real life energy and mannerisms of Mr. Tiede.
This isn't Mr. Black's first attempt to stretch his range, but the less said about Peter Jackson's wank-fest "King Kong" the better. Put Black into a role where he has to be conniving or rebellious, and all the old patterns and tricks come to play. By embodying someone the opposite of his regular persona, someone who up until the turning point of the film is accommodating, giving, meek, and quietly gifted, the actor was forced to truly do the work of an actor instead of being a Personality.
Shirley MacLaine's role is actually much smaller than I expected, but she manages to be much fairer to Marjorie Nugent than even her own nephew was in his story for the New York Times Magazine. MacLaine shows Nugent to be, yes, bitter, cruel, controlling, and harsh... but she also lets us see the fear, the gratitude, and the self-awareness of exactly how unlovable she is.
I knew someone like this many years ago. She was convinced that she could not be loved, and she worked diligently to prove that she was right. This isn't my opinion, but her own confession. The real life Bernie saw that pain and thought he could help, but no one person can meet such a savage and cruel inner darkness. I tried, and eventually got out with a shattered sense of self-worth and several years of depression. Bernie didn't, and utterly snapped.
Ok, I've moved afield from talking about performances and have moved to the meat of the film. This is a movie about someone who murdered an 81 year old woman. That sentence should tell you who the villain is, right? But the story of Bernie Tiede is not so simple. This is the story of a model citizen who tried to help someone who everyone else in the town has written off as being purely evil, and eventually snapped under the pressure.
But even that betrays. Not everyone in the town though that Bernie should get off, or get a reduced sentence, despite how the film portrays the town's mood. Nugent was not utterly unloved, as can be attested by her surviving friends (although she was estranged from her family to the point of lawsuits). Tiede has admitted that the lure of the first class lifestyle was a factor in him staying in the abusive relationship, but also said that fears of her retaliatory vengeance also kept him from leaving. Tiede himself was a victim of sexual abuse and continual bullying as a child.
Ultimately, Bernie the movie tips the already heavily weighted scales towards sympathy for the killer and away from the victim. A slightly more balanced approach might have served it better. Having even two or three people other than the D.A. expressing a desire to see Bernie rot in prison for what he did would have made for a more compelling and interesting film. As it is, the total absence of that perspective throws a pall of suspicion on the film's veracity. In was only in digging further into the case did I discover that the film was actually extremely accurate, if slightly imbalanced. It's such a minor thing, but given how rightfully suspicious audiences have learned to be about "ripped from the headlines" films, this small adjustment could have done wonders to boost the film's credibility.
All that said, is it a good film? Yes, I think so. It got my wife and I extremely curious about the real life case of Bernie Tiede and Marjorie Nugent, curious enough to look up news articles and essays by her family. It got us talking about the legal system, and the appropriateness of punishment. (We both agreed that Tiede should have gone to prison, but that the sentence, Life with no chance for parole for 30 years (50 in the film), was excessive)
It's not an edge of your seat film, it's not a shocking expose. It's a quiet film about complicated morality that hopefully gets the audience thinking about the many shades of grey involved when action/circumstance/and motivation collide. It's a "comedy" mostly in that the director chose to keep things brightly lit, and to let the small town residents speak their own often flippant minds on the subject. It's a comedy because the situation has marks of the absurd about it. It's a comedy because the director didn't work hard to fill it with threatening music and dramatic lighting. It's not a comedy because it's particularly funny.
And nor should it be.