'Where'd You Go, Bernadette': Film Review

As erratic as its protagonist.
8/16/2019

Cate Blanchett stars in Richard Linklater's adaptation of the 2012 comic novel about a Seattle architect who goes missing.

It's a given that many creative geniuses are also very neurotic, but when you're dramatizing such a person, is it more compelling to concentrate on the genius or the neuroses? While the answer, in most cases, would seem to lie in revealing the nexus between the two, Where'd You Go, Bernadette (no question mark) focuses almost exclusively upon the paralyzingly neurotic side of its subject, a brilliant architect who for two decades hasn't designed so much as a mailbox.

This affords the great Cate Blanchett any number of hyper-ventilating, evasion-centric loony scenes, but also leaves the heart of the matter 'til the very end. Richard Linklater's 19th feature becomes compelling in its final act, but before that too often appears tonally addled and dramatically dawdling.

Based on the best-selling 2012 novel by Maria Semple and adapted by Linklater along with Holly Gent and Vince Palmo, who co-wrote the director's likable 2008 look at a real-life creative genius, Me and Orson Welles, the new film for much of the way feels like a lightweight account of a heavyweight subject. Opening shots reveal that Blanchett's Bernadette will wind up kayaking about amid Antarctic icebergs, but a sudden lurch back to five weeks earlier reveals the far more prosaic water-bound predicament of a leaky house in water-logged Seattle. The cutesy strains of a sitcom-suitable score are not encouraging.

Seemingly coiffed to resemble Joan Didion at a certain age, Bernadette is described as one of the greats, a pioneer of the green architectural movement. In the moment, however, she is panicky, committed to avoidance and excuses, heavily medicated and a general pain; these days, she'd rather rant than create. The breezy, faintly jocular tone of the early scenes undercuts and almost makes light of the character's profound eccentricity and discounts her stated assessment of "the banality of life" — notwithstanding the fact that her husband Elgie Branch (Billy Crudup) is a tech titan, albeit currently sidelined, and their teenage daughter Bee (Emma Nelson) makes for three geniuses in the family.

Bernadette's anti-social behavior exceeds the posted limit when she causes a mudslide from her property to cascade down onto a lower property and into the house of her neighbor Audrey (Kristen Wiig), and during a school party, no less. The inundation being one transgression Bernadette can't literally sweep under the rug, the heretofore passive Elgie finally rouses himself to force an intervention, initially from an esteemed former colleague (Laurence Fishburne), who very simply concludes that she “must create!”

Simpler said than done. At this stage the film finally leaves behind the flashing yellow lights and shifts into a higher gear where the woman, however much she may protest, finally begins to peek out from under her protective rock, survey the landscape and come to see that her ultimate salvation may lie in — where else? — Antarctica.

From this point on, the journey becomes a more interesting one, serious but with an eccentric, unorthodox feel entirely dictated by the unusual titular figure, a woman who, we come to learn, has suffered a traumatic creative/professional blow that perhaps others might have risen above but that destroyed her ability to focus and create. It's a startling dilemma to consider once all the relevant evidence is laid on the table, which may come a little late in the game as far as engaging with the story is concerned. But it does provide the needed heft to carry the story through to its edifying conclusion.

In that a major Diary of a Mad Housewife aspect lies at the heart of the story, one can only wonder at times why Bernadette's condition has gone unaddressed for so long. She's worse than rude, actively mean, can't be trusted and will go to any extent to excuse or hide her irresponsible behavior. It's a bit unbelievable that, after all these years, her husband hasn't seriously engaged his wife's problem. The one vital relationship she maintains is with her brainy daughter, who invariably takes her side and is the one who, albeit inadvertently, opens the portal to her mother's eventual transformative escape from madness.

As usual chez Linklater, adroit touches and modest grace notes are scattered all about. His disinclination to punch up the melodrama has its pros and cons, and the very specific reason for Bernadette's extreme behavior eliminates any sense of the problem as a societal one; this is very much one woman's unique, peculiar and unfortunate story.

Amusement percolates as Bernadette dissembles, expresses scorn for others and otherwise acts out in her specific upper-class environment. As with Melissa McCarthy's character in the recent and excellent Can You Ever Forgive Me?, laughs are provoked by the spectacle of a middle-aged woman behaving badly and telling people off. But Blanchett's Bernadette's is, ultimately, the more disturbed and tragic character, one whose entire life has been overtaken by excuses and, overwhelmingly, a refusal to look her problem straight in the eye and deal with it.

The script departs from and simplifies the book considerably, softening the narrative in the process to the point where fans will likely feel let down. The main actors, and the kind of quiet, offbeat notes Linklater is able to draw out, provide some compensation, and the fact that this is the first American dramatic film ever to be partly filmed on the seventh continent will at the least guarantee it a footnote in cinema history.

Production companies: Annapurna Pictures, Color Force, Detour Filmproduction
Distributor: United Artists
Cast: Cate Blanchett, Billy Crudup, Kristen Wiig, Judy Greer, Laurence Fishburne, Emma Nelson, Zoe Chao, James Urbania, Troian Bellisario, Richard Robichaux, Kate Burton, Steve Zahn, Megan Mullally, David Paymer
Director: Richard Linklater
Screenwriters: Richard Linklater, Holly Gent, Vince Palmo, based on the novel by Maria Semple
Producers: Nina Jacobson, Brad Simpson, Ginger Sledge
Executive producers: Megan Ellison, Maria Semple, Jillian Longnecker
Director of photography: Shane Kelly
Production designer: Bruce Curtis
Costume designer: Kari Perkins
Editor: Sandra Adair
Music: Graham Reynolds
Casting: Vicky Boone

Rated PG-13, 104 minutes