Where'd You Go, Bernadette (United States, 2019)August 15, 2019
Although Where’d You Go, Bernadette suffers from an ungainly
structure and uneven pacing, the production as a whole is engaging and uplifting.
This is due in part to the strength of the cast but also owes something to
director Richard Linklater (Before Sunrise, Boyhood), whose deftness of
touch when it comes to characters draws out the strongest elements of an unbalanced
production. The movie is based on the beloved, best-selling novel by Maria
Semple. Linklater’s screenplay, which he co-wrote with Holly Gent and Vince
Palmo, captures the essence of the book as best it can. A lot of work appears to
have been done in the editing room. Early cuts of the film (which has had its
release date delayed multiple times over a one-year period) ran in excess of
two hours. The final theatrical version has a comparatively svelte running time
of 105 minutes.
The always-reliable Cate Blanchett plays Bernadette Fox, a
fortysomething shut-in who uses a remote Indian personal assistant, Manjula, to
run all her errands. Bernadette, once a promising young architect, left LA for
Seattle when one of her projects was bought then razed by a wealthy businessman
who owned the house next-door. Depressed over the destruction of something that
had been the focus of her creativity for years, she stopped working, instead moving
into an old, crumbling mansion badly in need of repairs and renovation. Following
four miscarriages, she gave birth to Bee (Emma Nelson), the girl who has become
her reason for living. Her husband, Elgie (Billy Crudup), a revered Microsoft software
engineer, spends as little time at home as possible.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette is told from the
perspective of the 15-year old Bee, whose witty voiceover narrative provides the
glue to hold together the fragmentary story of how Bernadette got into her
current circumstances. In transitioning the epistolary portions of the book
into movie form, Linklater faces challenges that he is unable to fully overcome.
The character of Bernadette is never fully realized – it’s more like there are
two versions of her; the movie is unable to connect the young go-getter of the
past with the vindictive, agoraphobe of the present. The central tragedy of her
life is explained but not dramatized.
The movie gains momentum once Bernadette disappears. For the
viewer, there’s no mystery. We know where she is and what she’s doing, but her
family is in the dark until Bee figures out that her mother has embarked on a
cruise to Antarctica, going ahead with a planned family vacation. While there,
in the white, wintery wilds of penguins and whales, Bernadette has an epiphany
and recognizes what she needs to do in order to have purpose.
Although it’s hard to tell for sure, but most of the cuts
appear to have occurred during the Antarctic portion of the movie, which moves
at a more rapid clip than the earlier portions. There’s also a shift in
point-of-view. While the first half of the movie presents Bernadette as seen
through her daughter’s eyes, the second half is Bernadette unfiltered. As a
result, she comes across as more sympathetic once she has run away than while
she’s still at home.
Despite an awkwardness to how Where’d You Go, Bernadette
is structured, Cate Blanchett’s performance patches over many rough spots. The
viewer’s initial dislike of the character gradually shifts to sympathy. This is
more a result of how Blanchett essays the character than as a result of the way
the narrative reveals elements of her past. The actress understands how to use
pomposity to hide insecurity and excitability to reveal an awakening. She is at
home with the tone as it vacillates from (dark) comedy to drama and back.
As Bee, Emma Nelson makes a strong impression in her first
feature role. It’s unclear how the film views Billy Crudup’s Elgie – we’re
never quite sure whether we’re supposed to cheer his forbearance or condemn his
obtuseness and absentee father-ism. Blame the screenplay not the actor; Crudup
does the best he can with an underwritten character. Notable actors Kristin
Wiig (as the busybody neighbor, Audrey), Judy Greer (as the psychiatrist brought
in to assess Bernadette’s condition), and Laurence Fishburne (as Bernadette’s
college professor and former colleague) provide supporting work.
It’s hard to say how the novel’s legions of fans will react to Linklater’s adaptation. The movie captures the spirit and tone of the book but not necessarily the nuances. Anyone unfamiliar with the source material may notice the hesitant and cumbersome quality of the narrative’s progression. Although this may diminish the movie’s effectiveness, it isn’t sufficiently egregious to strip away the enjoyment of watching Blanchett navigate Bernadette’s seemingly tragic character arc as it becomes a voyage of hope and self-discovery.
Where'd You Go, Bernadette (United States, 2019)
Cast: Cate Blanchett, Billy Crudup, Emma Nelson, Kristin Wiig, Judy Greer, Laurence Fishburne, Zoe Chao
Home Release Date: 2019-11-26
Screenplay: Richard Linklater & Holly Gent & Vince Palmo, based on the novel by Maria Semple
Cinematography: Shane F. Kelly
Music: Graham Reynolds
U.S. Distributor: Annapurna Pictures
- (There are no more better movies of Emma Nelson)
- (There are no more worst movies of Emma Nelson)