Past the Popcorn provides South King Media with exclusive reviews of Theatrical and Home Video entertainment. We aim to dig just a little deeper than the surface of what we watch.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette focuses on the titular Bernadette Fox, a former award-winning Los Angeles architect who has been hiding away from the rest of the world in Seattle for the past twenty years. Reluctant to interact with other humans, especially the other mothers at her daughter’s school, Bernadette spends most of her time working on their damp old house, while verbally texting errands around the world to her online assistant in India. When this online service turns out to be something else entirely, it throws the closed-off life she has been living into sudden disarray. So, in the middle of an intervention, she bolts out the bathroom window and disappears.
The movie is based on the 2012 bestselling novel of the same name by Maria Semple. The story of Bernadette’s disappearance in the book is told in a series of documents, such as emails, memos, and transcripts, with her daughter Bee checking in every now and then with narration. The challenge of adapting this kind of storytelling into a movie is that reading emails, memos, and transcriptions may work in a book, but it is not at all cinematic.
In an attempt to translate this material for the big screen, writer/director Richard Linklater and co-writer Holly Gent mostly pass on that challenge to their actors. And why not, when one of those actors is two-time Oscar winner Cate Blanchett? But even with a talent like Blanchett in the role, watching Bernadette do random household chores while she endlessly expresses all her inner thoughts into a Bluetooth headset is not very exciting. And it breaks one of the cardinal rules of cinema, telling us, rather than showing us.
At least half of this movie is an exposition dump, much of it coming in the form of a YouTube video within the movie that fills in Bernadette’s backstory for the audience. Although the random assortment of cameos in the talking head interviews and de-aged stars placed into old photographs and videos can be amusing, there are few things less worthy of being on the big screen than a YouTube news video (a rare exception being last year’s desktop thriller Searching). There is another scene later on that cross-cuts between two equally expository conversations, only to then return us to the YouTube video we were already bored with a second time.
When Blanchett isn’t narrating her inner thoughts to an off-screen assistant, she has some entertaining interactions with some of the other characters in her life, most notably her daughter Bee—played by charming newcomer Emma Nelson. The scenes with her and Blanchett, whether they be singing a duet along with the car stereo or sharing a moment at a concert of first-graders, are the most engaging parts of this movie.
As a Seattle-area native, I personally found some amusement in the movie’s few spot-on jokes at the city’s expense (“Seattle never met a two-way street it didn’t want to turn into a one-way street”), but then I was slightly offended by the constant rain and the fact that the role of Seattle was mostly played by Pittsburgh. The movie stays in Seattle far too long, anyway, as the promised disappearance of the title character waits right up until the final act to show itself. The point, of course, is that the real Bernadette disappeared twenty years ago when she stopped creating, but the revelations about her character’s emotional disappearance aren’t strong enough to hold up the movie without equal effort being paid to the mystery of her physical disappearance.
With its constant back-and-forth between Bee’s narration, the YouTube video, the dictated emails, and actual interactions between human characters, Where’d You Go, Bernadette always feels like a story looking for a narrative. Some scenes work and there are a few laughs, but it mostly feels out of sync with itself. It is a rare miss for both Linklater and Blanchett.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette opens today at the AMC Southcenter 16, the AMC Kent Station 14, the Century Federal Way, and Regal’s Stadium Landing 14 in Renton.