QUIRKY “BERNADETTE” LAUNCHES A JOURNEY OF REDISCOVERY
A Film Review by Tim Riley
“WHERE’D YOU GO, BERNADETTE” (Rated PG-13) Maria Semple’s comedy adventure novel “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” would seem to be one of the more challenging adaptations to translate to the big screen for a wide audience.
According to the press notes, Semple’s “Bernadette” is an epistolary novel that unfolds over the course of a series of correspondences in which letters and emails are the primary source material. For the uninitiated like myself, an epistolary novel is loosely defined as a series of documents in which the reader is privy to the private thoughts and feelings of the character.
To turn Semple’s novel to the silver screen feature “Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” the best bet was to hand over the challenge to director Richard Linklater (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Holly Gent and Vince Palmo).
The most compelling reason to see this film is the awesomeness of Cate Blanchett as the titular character, a brilliant Seattle resident who is withdrawn but does not hide her dismissive attitude to most people. Most amusing of all is how Bernadette Fox seeks to either rudely ignore or otherwise annoy her immediate neighbor Audrey (Kristen Wiig), going so far to erect on her property line a warning sign that proves to be offensive.
In a faux documentary style, where university professor Paul Jellinek (Laurence Fishburne) is one of several interviewed professionals, we learn that Bernadette was once a pioneering architect of tremendous vision.
Formerly based in Los Angeles and the legendary winner of a MacArthur Grant, Bernadette enjoyed notoriety for the ambitious “Twenty Mile” house that was built entirely from scrap materials within a 20-mile radius.
After this property was bought and demolished by a wealthy entrepreneur, Bernadette’s creative spirit was so crushed that she gave up her career for marriage to Elgie Branch (Billy Crudup) and moved to Seattle.
Two decades later, Bernadette finds the meaning of her life is centered around her teenage daughter Bee (Emma Nelson), who’s for all intents and purposes is her best and only friend.
Bernadette’s husband, Elgin, has become such a big deal as a Microsoft engineer that he is a largely absent spouse and father due to work and perhaps because of a new assistant who is not aloof and distant like his wife.
The family lives up on hill in an old, crumbling mansion that has irresistible historic charm but badly needs renovation and numerous roof leaks awaiting repairs.
Running the household is not Bernadette’s forte; her antisocial trait is evident in the fact that she has outsourced errands to an India-based personal assistant named Manjula because even a trip to the pharmacy is daunting.
On rare public outings, Bernadette hides behind large dark sunglasses that seem to shield her from an anxiety disorder that comes with a desire to avoid uncomfortable situations and even an encounter with an admirer of her architectural achievements.
Now married for a long time, Bernadette’s acerbic wit and caustic sarcasm, along with a general attitude of contempt for anyone outside the family, brings increasing dismay and alarm to Elgie who frets about his wife’s avoidance of social interaction.
Roused to stage an intervention, Elgie recruits a psychiatrist (Judy Greer) to assess Bernadette’s extreme behavior, a condition that may have been exacerbated by an abundant supply of her multi-colored prescription pills for unknown or unknowable maladies.
You can easily imagine the scorn that Bernadette exhibits when confronted in this way, and things get no better when an FBI agent arrives to investigate her relationship with the mysterious personal assistant’s involvement in identity theft.
Meanwhile, the smart, spirited Bee has persuaded her parents that a family trip to Antarctica would be a nice vacation before she heads off to an elite boarding school on the East Coast.
The Antarctica trip is the touchstone to the movie’s title, which of course raises an issue as to Bernadette’s whereabouts. As it happens, Bernadette simply disappears from home one night without so much as leaving a note.
Bee has figured out that her mother has already embarked on a journey to the ice-covered landmass of the Earth’s southernmost continent, and she and her father will have to catch up.
Having had an earlier encounter with Professor Jellinek at a Seattle café, Bernadette may have taken heed of his entreaty that she must regain her ability to create, presumably something architectural.
A lack of familiarity with Maria Semple’s novel proves not to be an impediment to enjoying the quirky adventure of the protagonist. I leave it to others to determine if liberties taken with the source material diminish the film in any significant way.
Cate Blanchett, who inhabits the complex role so deftly that no one else could justifiably play the part, captures every neurotic twist of a character irresistible to watch.
From the perspective of an unqualified observer on the film’s literary fidelity, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” is a touching, captivating and frequently hilarious adventure into the world of a prickly middle-aged woman on a journey of rediscovery.