Entertainment

Movie review: ‘Where’d You Go, Bernadette’ jumps from page to screen - do we care where she went?

Bee (Emma Nelson) and Bernadette (Cate Blanchett) have one in a series of talks about life. [Annapurna]
Ed Symkus More Content Now
Posted: Aug. 14, 2019 12:01 am

It’s a tricky task to adapt a bestselling book into a movie. So much has to be skimmed over, streamlined, changed from the printed word into cinematic language. The transition fails more often than it works. In the case of “Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” the 2012 novel by Maria Semple, the result is somewhere in between.

The story of award-winning architect Bernadette Fox, who abandoned her profession to live a quiet life with her family, but can’t shake the urge to once again get her creative juices flowing, is mostly there. More good news: Certain ingredients from the book that felt superfluous are nowhere to be found in the script.

But both book and film remain sort of flimsy affairs, with plots that promise intrigue and messages that hint at having some substance, yet they come across as kind of lightweight. Sticking just to the film, there’s plenty of entertainment value, and some terrific performances from the actors playing the three leads. It just feels that the whole is neither greater than nor even equal to the sum of its parts.

The film opens, in stunning visual style, off the coast of Antarctica, where Bernadette (Cate Blanchett) is enjoying some solitude kayaking among giant icebergs. Those visuals take an 180-degree turn when the film cuts to “five weeks earlier” and the location switches to the dilapidated, rambling old house in Seattle where Bernadette lives with her husband Elgie (Billy Crudup) and their teenage daughter Bee (Emma Nelson).

They seem to be happy. Bee, promised anything she wants if she does well in school, gets some outstanding grades, and asks for a family trip to Antarctica. Before mom and dad agree to it, there’s the slightest whisper of unease. Dad says to mom, “But you hate leaving the house.” Mom says to dad, “But you have all that work to do.” There are soon revelations of workaholism in dad, and misanthropy in mom, but keeping their promise to Bee, vacation plans begin.

Before a return to that watery, icy opening scene, there’s a great deal of storytelling leading up to it. And it’s that central part of the film in which most of its problems exist. Having read the book, the experience of now watching the film made me think that I might not understand much of what’s going on if I hadn’t read it. That’s the degree to which much of it has been pared down.

It’s easy to see that because Bernadette has little patience for activities like clothes shopping or paying household bills, she has secretly - Don’t tell Elgie! - started using a “virtual assistant” named Manjula to take care of those things. That certainly helps with her dislike of actually dealing with physical people.

But she can’t avoid her loud, self-centered neighbor Audrey (Kristen Wiig, overdoing it, as called for by the character), who is angry at Bernadette over blackberry vines encroaching upon her property.

But before that plotline can be developed, the film jumps to Bernadette’s storied yet cloudy past, nicely presented in a video documentary that explains her professional career and asks why she’s become “one of architecture’s enigmas.” Again, short shrift is given to this part of the story, and soon it’s back to planning the family trip, peering into Bernadette’s seemingly erratic behavior concerning both the trip and people she has to deal with in everyday life and a sudden concern of Elgie’s that something’s wrong with Bernadette, something that requires the attention of an earnest psychologist named Dr. Kurtz (Judy Greer, in a rare, misplayed performance).

Questions keep popping up: Is Elgie concerned with or angry at Bernadette? Why is the FBI suddenly interested in Bernadette? What’s the real reason Bernadette walked away from her career?

Some questions are answered, some are glossed over. An architect friend from her past shows up and wonders, “Where’d you go, Bernadette?” Just before the vacation, Bernadette vanishes, and both husband and daughter think, “Where’d she go?” Because of the opening scene, you know everything’s going to end up in Antarctica. And though it doesn’t conclude very convincingly, there’s some pretty cool stuff in the end credits that’s worth waiting for.

Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.

“Where’d You Go, Bernadette”
Written by Richard Linklater, Holly Gent, Vince Palmo; directed by Richard Linklater
With Cate Blanchett, Billy Crudup, Emma Nelson, Judy Greer, Kristen Wiig
Rated PG-13

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