Funeral director Bernie Tiede would do anything for people he liked everybody and wanted everybody to like him.
Wealthy oil widow Marjorie Nugent wouldn't do anything for anyone -- she wasn't on speaking terms with her own sisters, and her grandchildren sued her.
So when Bernie shot Marge, stuffed her in her freezer and started spending her money on just about everyone else in the small East Texas town of Carthage -- well, heck yeah, people were surprised.
But they still liked Bernie, and they still pretty much hated Marge.
The bizarre 1996 murder case was all so unusual, even for East Texas, that when filmmaker Richard Linklater ("Dazed and Confused," "The School of Rock") made a movie about it, he almost had to tone things down so his audience wouldn't think he made the whole thing up.
But it is all pretty much true, and despite the grim premise, it's entertaining as all get out.
Jack Black disappears into the title role of Bernie, a closeted homosexual, Sunday school teacher, local theater director and assistant funeral director who is just the sweetest man. He can sing, he can sell, and he can sympathize. He can find something honest and good to say about the most ornery of the dear departed, and he can make a production of "The Music Man" just pop! off the stage.
Black, who often can't resist letting us know he's in on the joke when he's on screen, never misses a mincing step as the story plays out. His Bernie, well-meaning, self-sacrificing and helpful to a fault, only cracks once -- fatally.
It is Marge Nugent who pushes him over. ShirleyMacLaine, in a small role she makes bigger, plays old Miz Nugent with a severity rooted in so much meanness that even her millions can't soften it. She has alienated her only son and the rest of her family, and the townspeople make a point of staying out of her way. But when her husband dies, kind-hearted Bernie makes no exceptions: He stops by to make sure she is doing all right. He stops by again to bring her some small gifts.
And, shockingly, Marge eventually opens her door to him. They become friends. He takes her places. She takes him to better places. She has him help with her finances; they fly all over the world and have the time of their lives.
Rumors fly along with them -- including that that 80-year-old widow has bought herself a thirtysomething boy toy. Maybe so, maybe not, but she does rewrite her will to make Bernie her sole beneficiary. That action doesn't change Bernie at all, but it sure changes Marge. She starts behaving as though she has bought and paid for her friend, and she expects him to be at her beck and call. He later compares it to feeling as if he were in prison.
MacLaine is good, Black is better, and Matthew McConaughey is a hoot as the district attorney who, unlike the rest of the townsfolk, doesn't feel too "understanding" when Marge is shot four times in the back.
What makes the movie, however, are Linklater's "interviews" with actors playing townsfolk, who give their takes on Bernie (almost universally positive) and on Marge -- "mean, mean, mean" and "nose so high she'd drown in a rainstorm."
In other worlds, it is the best and worst of small-town life: friendship and trust, gossip and that special kind of pleasure people feel in seeing others get what is coming to them.
Look for a particularly glamorous woman telling about Marge's trip to a lingerie shop, where she bought a see-through nightie -- at her age! Disgusting! The woman telling that story is Kay McCabe, Matthew McConaughey's mom.
Making a funny film about an elderly woman's murder is a tricky enterprise, but Linklater pulls it off. He doesn't make any bones about telling the story from Bernie's point of view, and there never is any contention that he shouldn't have been punished. (He's still in prison in Texas.)
But when the prosecution has to ask for a change of venue to have a chance of conviction -- rather than the defense worried about acquittal -- you know there's a tale there to tell there, and in the case of "Bernie," justice was done.
3 stars (out of 4)
STARRING: Jack Black, Matthew McConaughey, Shirley MacLaine
DIRECTOR: Richard Linklater
RUNNING TIME: 104 minutes.
RATING: PG-13 for some violent images and brief strong language.
THE LOWDOWN: Dark comedy based on the true story of a rich Texas widow who was murdered by her only friend, the nicest guy in town.