The process of turning a beloved book into a movie is always a little bit of a mystery: What alchemy preserves the magic from page to screen? And why do some just get lost in translation?
Where’d You Go Bernadette is faithful in many ways to Maria Semple’s bestselling 2012 novel, though its faithfulness sometimes feels like its downfall, too — a film of such determined quirk that it never quite gels as a human story.
To be fair, too, Semple’s style hardly made adaptation easy; nearly all of the novel unfolds in a series of emails, letters, and official documents. Still, director Richard Linklater seems to treat her tale of a blue-mood Seattleite who goes on the lam in Antarctica as literally as he can, streamlining the narrative into a sort of contained Wes Anderson whimsy.
As the titular Bernadette, Cate Blanchett dresses like a rainy-day Anna Wintour — all sleek brown bob, sweeping trench coats, and bug-eyed sunglasses — and behaves like a sort of agoraphobic Auntie Mame.
A one-time architectural wunderkind turned slightly mad housewife, Bernadette is kooky fun when she’s alone with her teenage daughter, Bee (Emma Nelson), but can hardly stand the company of anyone outside the family unit; even her long-suffering IT-genius husband, Elgin (Billy Crudup) doesn’t really seem to know how to reach her anymore.
The other moms at Bee’s school, particularly Kristen Wiig’s alpha den mother, Audrey, are the enemy (Bernadette calls them gnats) — but so is sleep, shopping, and pretty much all forms of socializing. The only thing she enjoys is spending time with Bee and instructing her remote personal assistant, Manjula, to execute various life tasks, from procuring fishing vests to finding prescription sleep aids strong enough to down a horse.
When a triggering incident sends her on the run, the movie moves beyond its Trials of the Northwest One Percent mode to a sort of diorama adventure of picturesque ice caps and anoraks (Bee’s wish, granted for a junior-high lifetime of good behavior, was meant to be a family trip to the South Pole).
It’s not quite a smooth transition, and neither is Blanchett’s performance; half the time she seems to be acting for theater, a sort of mannered melancholy that verges on camp; it’s only when Bernadette is really suffering that we get to see the quieter shades of her character come through.
Wiig and Crudup, and even some of the smaller cameo roles — Laurence Fishburne, Megan Mullaly, Judy Greer — reach for notes more resonant than straight satire. But Linklater, who brought such subtle, generous feeling to films like Boyhood and the Sunset trilogy, feels somehow miscast as the steward of Bernadette‘s willful eccentricities.
Instead, whatever the movie has to say about what is to lose yourself to motherhood or money or middle-aged fear — or more specifically, what becomes of an artist who stops making art — stays mostly at the edges, pushed aside instead for a parade of sunglasses, wacky set pieces, and waddling, oblivious penguins. B–
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- Author Maria Semple talks Where’d You Go, Bernadette‘ book and movie