… played by Jack Black, is the nicest, sweetest, most beloved undertaker in Carthage, Texas. Or anywhere else, for that matter. Shirley MacLaine plays the part of the richest, nastiest, most disliked citizen in Carthage, possibly in all of East Texas. The film starts out by saying “The story you’re fixin’ to see is true.”
Well, not completely, but when are they ever? And it don’t make no nevermind to me, I ain’t got a dawg in that hunt. All I care about is whether the part of the story they chose to tell is a good one, and this is a humdinger. It’s a great little movie. Jack and Shirley get together following the funeral of her husband, and soon he thaws her hard little heart, at least enough to let him into her life. He becomes her constant companion, going on lavish trips, buying stuff with her money—mostly for other people.
So why does he end up shooting her and stuffing her body in the freezer, where she is not found for nine months? Well, she’s not found because hardly anybody’s looking. Who would want to? That would be the heirs, and eventually she is defrosted and Bernie is arrested and brought to trial. He says she grew so demanding, taking up all his time and more than all of his patience, that he lost his mind. (In real life there are those who believe it was the other way around, that he set out to isolate her.) Matthew McConaughey plays the small-town DA whose sorry job it is to prosecute the murder. How well is Bernie liked in town? Enough so the DA is forced into the highly unusual step of getting a change of venue. So the deceased can get a fair trial!
It’s a dark comedy, though far from black. As is so often the case, the way the story is told is almost as important as the story itself. All through the movie, actual people from Carthage are telling the story in their charming East Texas drawls and with their down-home way of expressing themselves. Far from holding them up to ridicule, I think the director liked these people, and so did I. (Hell, I’m from East Texas my ownself.) But the thing the movie lives or dies on is Jack Black’s performance, and it’s just outstanding. Dadgummit, by the end I wanted to let him go. And all through the movie Jack is singing, at funerals, playing the part of Harold Hill in a local production of The Music Man, or just driving down the street. And—surprise!—he’s damn good. I’d never heard of this movie, but I’m very glad it came to my attention.