“Where’d You Go, Bernadette” has the perfect star in Cate Blanchett. As the reclusive, brilliant woman of the title, she flashes outright misanthropy toward everyone but her beloved daughter, Bee. Blanchett and newcomer Emma Nelson as Bee carry the film with their relationship, but director Richard Linklater did not bring his usual feel for the material to this adaptation from the fantastic book by Maria Semple.
Most film adaptations lose some of their complexity in translation from page to screen, but there were some omissions in this one that truly tipped the balance and meaning of the story, and highlighted a flat performance from Billy Crudup as Elgie, Bernadette’s husband, even more. Bernadette is supposed to be unlikeable; she is a complex character who has many facets and concerns other than being nice and making things nice for people. The book creates a much fuller life for her, and also gives Elgie some substantial flaws that were utterly omitted from the film.
What makes this story so unusually compelling, in both book and film, is how it logically and meaningfully expounds on this “quirky” character of Bernadette. She is both incredibly wonderful and loveable, and also rather mean. Male characters aren’t usually this complex, let alone the ladies. In the able hands of Blanchett, Bernadette comes through largely intact. But it felt like some kind of energy needed for the rest of the story was tapped and used up to some extent, and supporting characters and storylines were inexplicably muted.
Bernadette has an enemy in her next door neighbor, Audrey, played by Kristen Wiig, and this character was given short shrift as well. Their story was one of my favorites I have read in recent years, and it is still here in the film, but too clipped. Maybe there was just no way to please me since I was such a fan of the book. I really don’t understand why they changed Crudup’s character, though, and I am taking it personally. I truly might write a letter to Richard Linklater.
However, taken as a film on its own, it had a lot to offer. Of course, Blanchett and her fun and fascinating misadventures in the world of architecture, explored through a star-studded little documentary that includes Megan Mullaly, David Paymer, Steve Zahn and Laurence Fishburne, are far beyond what we usually get to sink our teeth into in a comedy.
“Where’d You Go, Bernadette” was good for an average movie, but not good enough for the above average source material, and with the people on board, I don’t understand it. Maria Semple, the author of the book, was a TV writer whose credits included “Arrested Development” before she wrote this novel, and I think they could have punched up the pacing to make the whole thing more impactful. It was good, but why wasn’t it great?
Elements that were so deeply felt and complex in the book came across as arbitrary here. I think I am Bee to Bernadette now, and I feel protective of this character, and they made her husband into a bland, sweet hero when he was an equal partner in Bernadette’s problems. The film’s ending is satisfying and meaningful, but to keep some of the other characters intact would not have made Bernadette just look better, it would have made the film look better.
“Where’d You Go, Bernadette” is currently available to rent.
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