Jack Black dials back his usual smug, over-the-top, comedic performance style to portray an effeminate killer and community pillar in the new dark comedy and character study, "Bernie", which is based on a true story of the controversial murder of a wealthy widow in the east Texas town of Carthage.

Bernie Tiede (Black) is a 39-year-old funeral director who is loved by the residents of Carthage. He’s a respected member of the little community and on the surface he appears to be a devout Christian preacher who sings and dances in local theater productions and as a mortician, gives extra attention and detail to the bodies of the departed souls under his care. He is especially well known for lending a helping hand to the town’s widows.

Bernie becomes romantically involved with Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), the elderly and overwhelming disliked widow of one of his wealthy deceased clients. The two spend several years together, wining and dining and traveling the world, until their relationship turns sour and the good-hearted gold-digger shoots his partner four times in the back, tosses her body in the freezer, then uses her fortune to philanthropically become an even more well-respected pillar of the community.

Eventually, Nugent’s accountant becomes suspicious of her disappearance and Tiede is arrested for her murder. No one really blames the man for doing what he did, but he’s found guilty for Marjorie’s murder nonetheless.  The small town residents are divided over Bernie’s motives, guilt and sexual orientation, and it all makes for an interesting study of the attitudes and muddy morality of Midwestern America.

Jack Black delivers a fantastic, if unexpectedly low-key, performance as the lead character in this movie and although his screwball comedy fans may be disappointed with this film, he proves he is a very capable actor and not a one-trick pony. Shirley MacLaine is fine in her role as Marjorie Nugent, but she depends mostly on facial expressions and body language as she barely has any lines in this film. Texas native Matthew McConaughey is barely recognizable in his cowboy hat and glasses as the headline-grabbing District Attorney Danny Buck, and like Black, it is fun to see him also playing against type.

Director Richard Linklater co-wrote "Bernie" with Skip Hollandsworth and he is very adept at telling small but entertaining stories from America’s heartland (see "Dazed and Confused" and "Slacker"). In "Bernie," he seamlessly blends on-location interviews, with the real-life residents of Carthage, together with the dramatic narrative involving his actors, and the result is a captivating mix of humor, drama and inter-community voyeurism.

The film "Bernie" has created a controversy in the real Carthage community and has divided the small town in the same way that the man himself did. Some are embracing the attention and others say it is casting a bad light on the town and that the film is completely inaccurate. The real-life Carthage District Attorney Danny Buck has been quoted as saying, "You can't make a dark comedy out of a murder,” and while I don’t think he gets the meaning of “dark comedy,” he is right in that "Bernie" is not very funny. It is nonetheless a fascinating snapshot of small town America.

Bob Leeper is a contributor to Nerdvana, the East Valley Tribune's award-winning pop culture, science and technology web site. Nerdvana focuses on the Valley's pop culture scene -- plenty of fun stuff for nerds -- as well as the East Valley's semi-conductor, defense, aerospace and bio-science industries.

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