Through a brilliant mix of real actors’ and actual town citizens’ testimonies to Bernie, Linklater uses the first part of his film to help us to comprehend why almost everyone so loves this man, and, more importantly, how dependent small town citizens are on people who respect and support their communal values. How easy it might have been (just ask the Coen brothers) to turn this series of short interviews—particularly given the accented vernacular of the East Texas twang—into a satiric put-down of rural Americana. Instead, Linklater, obviously in love with the very eccentricities his unsophisticated characters so readily display, helps us to comprehend them as true beings desperately in need of love and social communion as the most isolated urban dweller. Bernie offers nearly everything, except a beautiful face and shapely body, that anyone might desire. He is, as several of the town residents repeat, a total “people person,” a man of, for, and created by the people. "If the people of Carthage were to make a list of people most likely to get to heaven, Bernie'd be at the top," summarizes one local.
If we realize in his readiness to please that he is himself a lonely person, so too does Bernie comprehend this in nearly everyone he meets, even in the mean-spirited Marjorie Nugent (wonderfully performed by veteran Shirley MacLaine), whose wealthy husband has just died. True to form, Marjorie at first rejects Bernie’s attempts to console her. When he comes to her door bearing flowers, she scoops them up and slams the door in his face. But nothing seems to deter this gentle man, who appears again with a gift basket of toiletries. Even the devil himself would have to invite Bernie in. Before you can shake a stick, Bernie has put a smile (slight as that may be) on Marjorie’s sour puss, and before long he is ushering her to church and concerts. Within a few weeks the couple are traveling—first class, of course—on jaunts to Russia, France, New York and elsewhere, taking in the delights of saunas, operas, and theater fare. With her help, Bernie buys nine cars, an airplane, jet skis. If the residents are busy gossiping, it is more out of incredulity than suspicion. That Bernie has transformed their very meanest citizen into a semi-human specimen is only evidence once more of his powers as a genuinely nice human being.