Movie Review: Where’d You Go, Bernadette

Few novels are able to make a smooth transition to the big screen yet that fact doesn’t seem to deter filmmakers from trying to create the exception to the rule. A colleague recently asked me to name a novel that was turned into a good movie and my answer was “The Godfather”. I either showed my age with that response or the pool to choose from is so small that I had to name a film from 1972. Unfortunately, the film WHERE’D YOU GO, BERNADETTE, which is based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Maria Semple, follows the rule, not the exception.

Bernadette Fox (Cate Blanchett, OCEAN’S EIGHT; THOR: RAGNAROK; CAROL) is a somewhat agoraphobic woman who lives in Seattle with her Microsoft AI software designer husband, Elgie (Billy Crudup, ALIEN: COVENANT; JACKIE; SPOTLIGHT), and their 14-year-old daughter, Bee (Emma Nelson). To call their rambling, hilltop house a “fixer-upper” would be extremely generous but that doesn’t seem to bother Bernadette, who busies herself by strategically placing buckets filled with rags to collect water dripping from their leaky roof, and slicing open her Persian carpets to staple creeping blackberry vines to the floorboards. Elgie and Bee don’t seem to mind the chaos either, nor do they mind Bernadette’s ongoing feud with their uptight neighbour, Audrey (Kristen Wiig, MOTHER!; DOWNSIZING; GHOSTBUSTERS (2016); THE MARTIAN), and most of the other mothers at Bee’s upscale middle school. As for Bee, she’s about to graduate and go off to boarding school, and she’s decided to cash in on an agreement she made with her parents for getting a good report card with a family trip to Antarctica. Although Bernadette agrees to go, the thought of spending an extended amount of time with strangers sends her into a tizzy and, days before they’re about to leave, she does a runner, forcing Elgie and Bee to travel to the end of the world to look for her.

It isn’t much of a mystery as to where Bernadette goes when we’re shown it in the film’s opening scene, but, as we come to learn, this isn’t a story about where she goes. It’s about where she’s been for the past 20 years. Bernadette, we’re told in cheap expository fashion, was once a famous architect, winning a MacArthur “Genius” Grant for her creation of an iconic house. Life, though, took away Bernadette’s mojo, leaving her housebound in a city she hates where her only friend is a virtual shopping assistant named Manjula. On the rare occasion when she does go out in public, she’s nothing short of glacial to everyone but her family as hides from the world behind her Anna Wintour sunglasses and bobbed haircut. She’s truly a loathsome person who should have seen a psychiatrist years ago. Screenwriter-director Richard Linklater (BOYHOOD; the BEFORE trilogy), however, tries to paint her as a sympathetic character who could somehow overcome two decades of wandering in the emotional wilderness if she can only find her life’s mission again. Let’s just ignore the fact that she’s a self-medicating, bipolar hypochondriac who has dangerously reckless tendencies. The story makes a half-hearted attempt to include a family intervention but then Linklater jettisons that arc as soon as Bernadette bolts through the bathroom window as if to say that finding her raison d’etre is all the help she needs. Ah, if only life were that simple.

Many critics are calling Blanchett’s performance here her worst ever. It could very well be. Between that and the horrible screenplay, WHERE’D YOU GO, BERNADETTE is a complete mess and a total waste of your time and money if you go see it.

Though it’s only August, I am quite sure that this film will end up on my list of least favourites of 2019. Do yourself a favour and read the book instead… or not.

Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live on Friday, August 23rd, 8:30 am HK time!

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