In the tiny, rural town of Carthage, Texas, assistant funeral director Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) was one of the town's most beloved residents. He taught Sunday school, sang in the church choir and was always willing to lend a helping hand. Everyone loved and appreciated Bernie, so it came as no surprise when he befriended Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), an affluent widow who was as well known for her sour attitude as her fortune. Marjorie quickly becomes fully dependent on Bernie and his generosity and Bernie starts to  struggle to meet her increasing demands.

Odd duck comedy/drama casts Jack Black in a surprisingly new light.

Jack Black, take a bow. In Richard Linklater’s morbidly amusing Bernie, Black casts aside his trademark brash, noisy comedic shtick for a shrewdly-judged performance of remarkable nuance, subtlety and complexity.

Black subverts all expectations in a highly original work

Instead of the clown we’ve seen in Tropic Thunder, Shallow Hal, The Holiday and School of Rock, Black subverts all expectations in a highly original work which is alternately laugh-out-loud funny, troubling and shocking.

In yet another case of truth being stranger than fiction, the film is based on the true story of Bernhardt Tiede, who moved from Louisiana to the tiny East Texas town of Carthage in the 1990s. Known to all as Bernie, he gets a job as assistant funeral director. Aged in his late 30s, Bernie is hailed by the funeral home director as 'an artist in embalming" and quickly becomes the most popular guy in town. Rumour has it that he’s gay, or 'light on the loafers" as his boss puts it, and at least one resident, District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey), has no doubts.

Bernie sings beautifully in church and directs and performs in community theatre musicals. After burying her oil tycoon husband, he comforts the elderly, wealthy Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine). The prune-faced Mrs Nugent, who is estranged from her family, is just about the most unpopular woman thereabouts, regarded as mean, crabby and rude, but she takes a shine to the charming, solicitous Bernie, enlisting him as her business manager, companion, chauffeur and servant. And why not? As one resident observes, it was the first time anyone had been nice to her for 50 years.

Bernie enjoys the lavish lifestyle which his new employer affords him, including numerous trips overseas and side-by-side spa massages while they hold hands, but his motives remain obscure. Was he after her money? Did he really enjoy her company?

But Bernie’s happiness is short lived as he feels increasingly suffocated by the demanding, possessive and bullying Marjorie. To reveal any more would spoil several unexpected twists in the screenplay by Linklater and Skip Hollandsworth, who documented the Tiede case in Texas Monthly magazine in 1998.

With slicked-down hair and caterpillar moustache, Black deftly portrays a seemingly harmless, jovial and religious man who hides a dark side. He gets to show his vocal chops, belting out 'Seventy-Six Trombones’ from The Music Man, 'Beautiful Dreamer’, 'I've Never Been in Love Before’, 'He Touched Me’ and 'Amazing Grace’.

MacLaine is delightfully deadpan, occasionally allowing a faint smile to lighten her stern features as she regards Bernie with a mixture of amusement and disapproval. Beneath the mask, the actress reveals a lonely and vulnerable woman. The playful banter between the two turns into baleful glares and, from Marjorie, tart comments and tantrums, enabling both actors to show a range of emotions without once going over the top.

With unkempt hair and a lousy dress sense, McConaughey is a hoot as the self-important, smug and folksy DA, although one wonders if East Texas lawyers could be so ignorant.

Adding to the authenticity, Linklater cast dozens of townsfolk as minor characters and extras. Many of the residents’ observations about Bernie, the widow Nugent and fellow Texans, delivered straight to camera like vox-pops, are very funny, peppered with quaint expressions such as 'so sticky-outy" and 'our donkey’s in a ditch".

However, that quasi-documentary technique works against the narrative drive, sometimes serving as distractions when more focus should have been placed on the shifting dynamics between Bernie and Marjorie.

On one level, the film serves as a biting satire of life in small-town America, tempered with a degree of affection. On another, it poses a disturbing question: How well do we really know our neighbours?

Linklater first teamed with Black on School of Rock in 2003. The director continued to make an eclectic range of films including Before Sunset, A Scanner Darkly, Fast Food Nation and Me and Orson Welles. Casting Jack as Bernie may have been a risk but it turned out to be a masterstroke.

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1 hour 39 min
In Cinemas 16 August 2012,