Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) is the guy everybody likes in the town of Carthage, East Texas. Who cares if he is effeminate or, as they say locally, with admirable discretion, “light in his loafers?” Bernie is gentle and courteous with everybody.
He is especially nice to the folks he looks after at the funeral home, where he is a model employee. Old ladies just love him too. All goes well until he starts to pay particular attention to the recently widowed and wealthy Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine). The folks in Carthage generally consider the widow to be "a mean old bitch."
But Bernie calls around to her house when nobody else calls, so she becomes dependent on the only person who seems to like her - hell, even her grandaughter tried to sue her.
But this is where the trouble starts for Bernie, because as she becomes dependent on him, the widow also gives him power of attorney over her money. Being the decent soul he is, he begins to be recklessly generous to the locals. But he enjoys the good life the pair have when they fly off on expensive vacations to Russia or Acapulco or New York.
So, is he a gigolo or what? Through Linlater's mock-documentary structure, we get the decidedly colourful views of many of the local townspeople on this very question, as we do on many another question concerning the enigma that is Bernie.
Matthew McConaughey is brilliant as the crafty local District Attorney who begins to smell a rat. Jack Black is a tonic as Bernie and MacLaine is a wonder as his sour-faced companion. It’s great escapism, but it just begins to sprawl towards the close. Mordant in the extreme, the humour may not be to everyone's taste, and some may be unsettled by the opening scene featuring a corpse being prepared for burial by Bernie. The movie is based on real-life events that hit the headlines in Texas in 1998.