Audiences can find Bernadette Fox before they even know she’s missing. Fox (Cate Blanchett) appears paddling in Antarctica at the beginning of Where’d You Go, Bernadette five weeks she performs a French exit on her blasé Seattle life when her husband Eglin (Billy Crudup) tries to send her to the loony bin. If you’ve seen the trailer for Where’d You Bernadette, this revelation isn’t a surprise.
Where Bernadette goes, however, is a marvelous surprise in Maria Semple’s delightfully and intricately crafted novel that inspires this film. Adaptations like Where’d You Go, Bernadette? must be complete hell to bring to the screen, but to director Richard Linklater’s credit, the film is generally quite amusing until Bernadette flees the coop. It’s a fun roller coaster of an adventure and with a knock-out performance by Blanchett. But, frustratingly enough, the superior first half of the film is more revealing of the nuances and sparks that are lost in translation. Viewers who haven’t read the book will probably be in for a wilder ride, but perhaps Bernadette might have been better served as a mini-series à la Big Little Lies.
Much of Semple’s book is comprised of emails and written exchanges, so very little plays out in the straightforward prose that is often filmable as written. Turning the pages of Semple’s runaway bestseller, one discovers Bernadette’s wicked sense of humour and disconcerting anti-social behaviour that reveal a troubled mind, as well as her perceptiveness in seeing how husband and neighbours’ sense of reality is far more whacked-out than her own. In between these letters are speculations by Bernadette’s daughter, Balakrishna aka Bee (Emma Nelson in the film), who wonders about her mother’s disappearance after she is forced to continue her life without her.
Bernadette spends her days in the family’s decaying heritage house—evidence of her former career as an ambitious architect who could transform any derelict building into modern art—and avoiding all the pesky neighbours whom she endearingly refers to as “gnats.” The book puts audiences inside Bernadette’s mind by presenting a series of correspondences between the architect and her virtual assistant, Manjula, a “Dear Ndugu” type character like Jack Nicholson’s unseen foster child in About Schmidt. These exchanges are frequently laugh out loud funny in their candidness, energy, and political incorrectness. Bernadette rants about life in Seattle and complains about her uptight neighbour Audrey (Kristen Wiig), treating Manjula like a surrogate therapist while placing Amazon orders and procuring ludicrously powerful prescription drugs while preparing for a trip to Antarctica—an utterly random graduation gift for Bee.
In between Bernadette’s multi-page rants and Manjula’s politely brief responses are additional emails between Audrey and her fellow gnat Soo-lin (Zoë Chao in the film). They gossip endlessly, often about Bernadette, while humorously constructing seemingly perfect lives, arranging bake sales and brunches, and turning Audrey’s allegation that Bernadette tried to run her over in the school parking lot into an international incident. (The film introduces the latter plot point and quickly abandons it altogether.) Semple creates a hilarious battle of the minds as a reader unpacks these exchanges and sifts through the evidence trail that precedes Bernadette’s disappearance. The contrasts between Bernadette’s take on things and Audrey’s perception of reality speak volumes about the states of mind of every character in the book.
The Manjula letters still appear in the film as Blanchett dictates Bernadette’s rapid-fire rants and audio-to-text technology allows the epistolary form of the novel to translate easily. The conspiratorial exchanges between Audrey and Soo-lin don’t make the cut, though, and the film loses its edge in the process since Audrey in the book is to Bernadette what Renata Klein is to Madeline McKenzie in Big Little Lies, albeit in a politically correct Pottery Barn way. The film could have used something akin to the concentric rings of peripheral storytellers/gossipy soccer moms from Jean-Marc Vallée’s first season of Big Little Lies, so a lot of the secondary characters like Soo-lin and Audrey (as fun as Wiig is) aren’t put to good use before they disappear altogether. (Which is a curious choice given the role Audrey plays in the mystery of Bernadette’s disappearance and redemption in the book.)
The adaptation is a bit of a disappointment coming from Linklater, who frequently excels at messy relationships and honest family dynamics as seen in films like the Before trilogy, Boyhood, and Last Flag Flying or boisterous humour in films like School of Rock and Bernie. He struggles with the tonal shifts between the film’s darkly irreverent humour in the first half and the Secret Life of Walter Mitty inspirational charm once Bernadette goes to Antarctica. Far more adept, however, is Blanchett’s handle on Bernadette.
If there’s one case in which Where’d You Go, Bernadette completely delivers on its potential, it’s in casting Cate Blanchett as the wily, hilarious, and heartbreaking Bernadette Fox. Blanchett is in full Blue Jasmine mode delivering Bernadette’s breathless rants and raves with madcap energy. She captures the sadness underneath the character as Bernadette struggles to preserve her sanity in an environment that feels completely alien and fails to nurture her creative energy. The performance is more subdued than the full-throttle nutter of her (deservedly) Oscar-winning turn as Jasmine French as she navigates Bernadette’s mercurial mood swings. In Blanchett’s hands, Bernadette is a surprisingly relatable force for anyone who has ever questioned their place or purpose in the world. Blanchett clearly got the memo that Bernadette’s disappearance happened long before the character got to Antarctica – and it’s a joy to watch this remarkable woman find herself in her own skin.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette? opens in theatres August 16.