If I hadn't already read Skip Hollandsworth's 1997 Texas Monthly article recounting the tragicomic tale of assistant funeral director Bernie Tiede, I'd swear this film adaptation was based on one of Joe R. Lansdale's East Texas gothics. As ever, truth proves itself stranger than fiction in this film by Richard Linklater, who co-scripted with Hollandsworth. And Jack Black redeems himself (for Gulliver's Travels, among other things) with a subtly quirky performance that's one of his personal best.
Black plays Bernie, a devout Methodist and even more dedicated mortician's assistant in Carthage, a tiny East Texas backwater. He's such a chipper, benevolent man that it's something of a miracle when he manages to befriend his opposite number, the loveless and loathed-by-all Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine, in another standout performance). She's the richest skinflint in town, a widow much older than Bernie.
At first they're friends, then travel companions, then perhaps more. This bizarre May-December romance comes to a startling conclusion that involves Matthew McConaughey devouring scenery as district attorney Danny "Buck" Davidson. I'll say no more for those who are unaware of the facts.
Linklater intercuts Tiede's story with fond reminiscences of Tiede from actual Carthage residents, only adding to the film's pleasantly oddball vibe, which intersects at the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Main Street, U.S.A. I'm not sure how it'll play in Peoria, but I can pretty much guarantee it'll be held over in Carthage itself, so eloquently does it capture the peculiar rhythms of life and death in small-town Texas.