It sounds like a clever idea: Why not let firsthand witnesses narrate a movie about the stranger-than-fiction friendship between Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), a nasty Texas dowager, and Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), the beloved small-town mortician who killed Marjorie in 1996 and hid her in a freezer for nine months? Here’s why not: Because when director Richard Linklater does just that — bookending nearly every scene of his pitch-black comedy Bernie with commentary from the colorful pals and neighbors who knew the ill-fated couple in 1990s Carthage, Tex. — he guts his own movie. All those twangy, homespun observations interrupt and annotate the narrative until Black and MacLaine’s scenes start to feel as trivial as reenactments on a true-crime TV show.
That’s a shame, since both actors give fearless, all-in performances. Black turns his comic energy inward, playing Bernie as a cherubic oddball so endearing that the local DA (Matthew McConaughey) is scolded around town just for investigating him. MacLaine, in an underwritten battle-ax role, lets flickers of charm shoot out behind her scowl. They deserve a better movie, one that would trust them to tell their characters’ story on their own — without footnotes. B-