Where’d You Go, Bernadette
Directed by Richard Linklater
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Kristin Wiig, Judy Greer, Billy Crudup, Laurence Fishburne
Rated PG-13 for some strong language and drug material
2 hrs. 10 min.
To know Bernadette is to know a brilliant, eccentric woman who suffers no fools, offers discourse in a fusillade of words and possesses a joyous talent. Minus the eccentricity, you might be talking solely about Cate Blanchett, the Oscar-winning actress who plays her. She shines in this adaptation of Maria Semple’s best-selling novel, Where’d You Go, Bernadette.
Director Richard Linklater (School of Rock, Boyhood), Holly Gent and Vincent Palmo Jr. bring the book to life, told in emails, messages, transcripts and narration by her daughter, Bee (Emma Nelson, in a heart-filling motion-picture debut). This is an exceptional vehicle for Blanchett as Bernadette Fox, a gifted architect, revered in her craft. She, husband Elgie (Billy Crudup) and Bee live in a vast, old Seattle manse that looks as neglected as Grey Gardens — the perfect do-over property for someone so artistic, right?
Elgie’s a workaholic developer for Microsoft, and teenaged Bee is looking forward to her reward for outstanding grades: a trip to Antarctica. For all this seeming domesticity, however, the bright star that is Bernadette feels dulled by the Pacific Northwest. Seattle, beautiful beneath its steel-grey skies and persistent downpours, is getting the best of Bernadette, as is her perky neighbor, Audrey (Kristin Wiig), one of those officious types that reminds you of a pot that’s destined to boil over.
As is the case with that species of creative supernovas, something in Bernadette is pegging her meters, making her reclusive, giving her little patience with the Audreys of our world. Considering the title, no spoiler alert is necessary to tell you that she lights out to find peace. Blanchett on Bernadette’s journey, her daughter/best friend, and cameos by the likes of Steve Zahn and Megan Mullaly, make the path she takes charming and funny.
Laurence Fishburne plays an old colleague with some sage words of advice. Judy Greer is Dr. Kurtz, the psychiatrist Elgie brings in when Bernadette’s behavior drives him to the point of exasperation. You have to look for it. Billy Crudup never really looks exasperated. Elgie’s demeanor is like that of anyone with the intellectual wherewithal to create software.
With Academy Awards for channeling Katherine Hepburn in The Aviator and the lead role in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, Blanchett more than makes up for the film’s few lagging moments during Bernadette’s retreat from the maelstrom that starts to envelope her. For some movies, that would be fatal. Not so, here. You root for Bernadette; you’re taken with her; you wish her well.
Only the locations compete with Blanchett’s work. Greenland (which is NOT for sale) stands in for Antarctica, with its massive ice formations (digitally added), playful penguins and intoxicating quiet. Seattle is, indeed, an emerald city, lush, green, cloudy but embracing. San Francisco would be too hipster, New York too noisy. Puget Sound is just the setting for this story. Bernadette’s disassociation from her surroundings has an even deeper meaning, revealed through an online video tribute to her architectural career and her use of an online personal assistant, Manjula.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette may well satisfy readers of Semple’s novel. Filmgoers who knew nothing of the 2012 book will assuredly fall for Bernadette, as her husband Elgie did, and want to wrap their arms around her, in spite of her burgeoning misanthropy. Fiction often tells stories obscured by fact. Genius is often misunderstood, and taken advantage of. That’s all you have to know about someone who’d take a hike when the walls seem to be closing in, and you’ll find it’s the answer to where Bernadette has gone.