Published Aug 16, 2019All bestsellers are adapted eventually. Where'd You Go, Bernadette, Maria Semple's ubiquitous 2012 novel about a creatively stifled woman searching for her lost talent while her family tracks her movements, is one that probably should've been left on the shelf.
Cate Blanchett plays Bernadette Fox, former leader of an exciting architectural movement in L.A., now 20 years into a self-imposed exile in soggy Seattle after watching her proudest construction get bulldozed. Now she lives a life in hiding, sighing at her lot in life, but putting her energy into categorically banal pursuits: ordering shit from Amazon and harassing her neighbours. Blanchett has plenty of experience playing the privileged woman on the edge of ennui (Carol, Blue Jasmine) so the role of Bernadette is an easy fit. Too easy, maybe.
Having undergone numerous re-writes and artistic tugs-of-war, WYGB resembles Semple's novel only in patches. Director and co-writer Richard Linklater chooses to make the titular question more psychological than literal, jettisoning Bernadette's early disappearance and most of the detective work of her daughter Bee (a very natural Emma Nelson) and husband Elgin (Billy Crudup) in order to give Blanchett more screen time and so that the trailers could freely give away that they all end up in Antarctica.
The character of Bernadette isn't given any room to be truly mysterious, a problem that permeates the film. While Linklater fusses with close-ups and narration — crutches for a director who has proved what he can express with space and silence in the Before trilogy — his actors are as stifled as Bernadette's creativity.
The standout scene of the film occurs with no embellishment. Bernadette and a former colleague, played by Laurence Fishburne, sit down to discuss her stalled career. Watching Paul quietly listen to Bernadette spilling from subject to subject, revealing personal tragedies with rueful, ironic despair, allows us insight into how smart women — even once-in-a-generation talents — are often prisoners of their own pain. No narration is necessary.
It's a lovely film to look at. There detailed watercolours of architectural sketches, lingering glances at a sculpture in the plushest pharmacy in Seattle, birds-eye shots of neon kayaks skimming towards gargantuan icebergs, and a building sequence over the credits that feels like Imperial Walkers are invading Antarctica. Where'd You Go Bernadette has moments of true beauty, but ultimately struggles with what it's trying to say.