Where’d You Go Bernadette (2019) Review
A QUIRKY, CONFUSING, AND BLAND DRAMEDY
Film adaptations from bestselling books are a dime a dozen of recent Hollywood feature endeavors. The idea of “page to screen” isn’t exactly new or anything, but it has proven to work by bringing to life popular novels, beloved tales, and bestselling literary stories to the silver screen. The inherit hype of bringing such narratives to the “big screen” has always been popular and translating literary to cinematic can definitely prove to be a trying task, but the results can be a mixed bag of sorts. Like theatrical motion pictures out there, these “book to film” adaptations can either be a big success or a disappointing flop. Now, Annapurna Pictures and director Richard Linklater present the latest big-screen movie adaptation of a popular bestselling novel with the movie Where’d You Go, Bernadette, which is based on the book of the same name by Maria Semple. Does the film find a cinematic medium within its presentation or does something get lost within its translation?
Since moving to Seattle, Bernadette Fox (Cate Blanchett), a once famous L.A architect that was talk of the town, has reached a brick wall in her life. Despite finding love years ago with her now current husband Elgin Branch (Billy Crudup), a tech genius who works for Microsoft, the famous structure artist designer has plateau in her creativity and facing a sort of midlife crisis. As a devoted stay-at-home mother to her beloved daughter Bee (Emma Nelson), Bernadette doesn’t like to leave their house or socialize with the parents at Bee’s school, especially their overbearing neighbor Audrey (Kristen Wiig). When Bee gets both of her parents to reluctantly agree to take trip to Antarctica (as a reward for her perfect grades in school), it sends Bernadette into frenzy that creates more conflict with those around her; projecting more of an unhinged persona and worry / concern within. However, after a sequence of events plan to derail her life even further, Bernadette disappears, with Bee and Elgin to figure where she’s gone. However, unbeknownst to her husband and daughter, Bernadette search for her “second act” of creativity in the most unlikeliest place.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
Oh, the famous “page to screen” film adaptation. So many, but resulting in various results. Working at a bookstore for many years, I’ve seeing plenty of literary works (from children’s picture books to classic novels to contemporary bestsellers) and a lot of them (most of the popular titles) I’ve been wanting to see. However, the results have been varied with each release. The ideas are usually there, but sometimes the translation of it all gets a bit muddled. This includes the reworking a literary novel into the framework of a feature film (time constraints), the reworking of the narrative (changing the story for a movie), the cast choices, the visual effects, and host of other creative decisions that play a factor in a viewer’s likeability of the presentation. Then again, some translations actually do work and have received universal acclaim from critics and moviegoers everywhere. Thus, it’s sort of a “give and take” when Hollywood releases a “page to screen” film adaptation.
Now, Where’d You Go, Bernadette (based on the book of the same name by author Maria Semple is the latest “book to film” endeavor from Hollywood, seeking to find “cinematic gold” within its presentation. Again, working at a bookstore, I remember seeing Semple’s book on the book shelves in the Fiction section. I usually shelved the book here and there with several customers asking for it every now and again, but only skimmed the back cover for its synopsis, which looked vaguely interesting. Then I heard that the book was gonna be turned into a movie, which was the release of the film’s movie trailer. Judging from the trailer itself, it looked like to be a standard “page to screen” type endeavor (nothing hugely special about it), but a solid work of its feature presentation. Plus, I do like actress Cate Blanchett, so I was somewhat curious to see the movie. However, the film’s release came out with four other movies. Thus, I didn’t get the chance to see the film until later on, which delayed me writing my review for it…. until now. What did I think of it? Well, to sum it up quickly. It was quite bland endeavor. Despite the classic “popular / bestselling” literacy source material and a strong performance within actress Cate Blanchett, Where’d You Go, Bernadette ends up being confusing and woefully boring “book to film” adaptation that just doesn’t really go anywhere. Again, the idea of Semple’s novel is there, but the movie itself is just uninteresting and unfit.
As a quick reminder, I did not get a chance to read Semple’s novel. So, this review is mostly gonna be on the movie itself and not so much on what was added, removed, or changed within its cinematic translation.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette is directed by Richard Linklater, whose previous directed other feature films like School of Rock, A Scanner Darkly, and Boyhood. With his background in a wide variety of movies, Linklater seems like a suitable choice in helming a project like this, which focuses on the inane quirks and brash aloofness that Bernadette faces in her day-to-day life; always looking for a way to change her humdrum life but ends up being stuck in the middle. Linklater has been known for his character driven pieces within his work and definitely showcases that in this movie, utilizing Bernadette’s journey as a way to showcases a sort of “life in tragedy” as the main centerpiece of the feature as she tries to figure out what to do and to where to go next in her life. In that regard, Linklater succeeds. Additionally, the film’s screenplay, which was penned by Linklater as well as Holly Gent and Vincent Palmo Jr., touches upon that same character plight of an individual having a mid-life crisis that’s unable to decide what to next. This is probably most thanks to Semple’s source material, but the translation onto the big screen is palpable in its understanding, which can be reflected onto everyone. As a side-note, the movie also highlights the effect of mental illness within the character of Bernadette, presenting her in a surreal situation within her inner turmoil as well as her exterior persona with her family and other individuals.
The technical cinematic presentation of Where’d You Go, Bernadette is pretty solid for a dramedy. Sure, the movie probably won’t get any award nomination, but the presentation itself is pretty standard for a feature film of this caliber. Meaning, I wasn’t super impressed with it, but neither was it deplorable and / or looking “cheap” in any way. To me, a film like this doesn’t have a large emphasis on its technical presentation. That being said, the film’s art direction (as well as production design and set decorations) is a solid quality and definitely reflects the feature’s main character of Bernadette Fox, which is most notable within her house: an expansive dwelling that’s overwrought with weeds and tarnished with an unfinished feeling throughout. A somewhat sublime “physical” characteristic to the movie’s main lead. Additionally, a few cinematography shots by Shane F. Kelly are pretty noticeable and well-laid out in the movie, especially towards the third act. Also, the movie’s score, which was composed by Graham Reynolds gets the job done in providing some background music throughout (in a pleasing way).
Unfortunately, Where’d You Go, Bernadette doesn’t really speak volumes within its film adaptations and, despite having a strong bestselling fanbase within Semple’s novel, does really rise to occasion; stumbling. Perhaps the most notable criticism I had with this movie (as I’m sure others out there will agree with me) is that the movie, which I would consider to be a dramedy of sorts, doesn’t really go anywhere. Yes, there is a narrative to follow, with Semple’s literary work acting as the feature’s main blueprint to follow, but the movie’s screenplay just wanders a bit aimlessly or rather in a lackadaisical manner that does little to invigorate or add excitement to the feature. Thus, for lack of better words, Where’d You Go, Bernadette is just simply boring. Again, I haven’t read Semple’s novel, which are head is good, but the movie adaptation of it is quite a snoozer that really doesn’t have enough material to get a wholesome cinematic entertainment endeavor if you know what I mean. What’s presented is a rather quirk and sometimes confusing movie that doesn’t really know what it wants to be. Of course, the character of Bernadette Fox is the main focus, but Linklater struggles to truly define the movie’s main plot until almost the halfway point (i.e. when Bernadette goes missing). In truth, this leads into another problematic area with Linklater making the feature have a confusing tone throughout. There’s definitely an unbalance nature of the film, which tries to be funny and humorous at times and then quickly switching to heavy dramatic moments. This combination, while sometimes commonplace in movies, can work, but doesn’t really in Where’d You Go, Bernadette. This results in the film creating an inconsistent throughout and creates a bland narrative execution.
Additionally, the movie’s pacing is another criticism. With the film not being super exciting, the actual pacing of the feature slogs along and really does make the movie drag. This is only made worse when the film’s runtime is 130 minutes long (i.e. two hours and ten minutes), which certainly does feel that way from start to finish. This is most apparent during the feature’s first half (the entire first act and part of the second act), with Linklater meandering through a series of quirky sequences that definitely showcases Bernadette’s characteristic, but struggle to establish itself within its supporting players. There’s a great sense of corny / cheesy feeling towards the film’s third act, layering a series of events that, while wholesome, does take several moments of disbelief to fully digest. This certainly does undermine the story’s plot and just render the climatic point of Where’d You Go, Bernadette in a confusing and cheesy way. Speaking of the ending, Linklater makes the film’s conclusion a bit lackluster and a bit melodramatic that doesn’t really resonate in a satisfying way. Stuff gets concluded, but the journey’s end of it all leaves a lot (and I do mean a lot) to be desire. It’s as if Linklater try to make the film’s third act wrap everything up in a Lifetime TV movie endeavor, which doesn’t quite fit a theatrical motion picture and ends up backfiring in the likeability of Where’d You Go, Bernadette.
Perhaps the big positive highlight that the movie has to offer is with Oscar winner actress Cate Blanchett being attached to Where’d You Go, Bernadette as the film’s lead character of Bernadette Fox. Blanchett, known for Elizabeth, Carol, and Blue Jasmine, perfect embodies the sheer passion, unbridled frustration, sharp snarkiness, and emotional insecurities within the character of Bernadette. This is probably where Linklater provides his best work on the film, molding Blanchett’s prolithic theatrical talents for Semple’s titular character and definitely elaborates the almost tragedy of Bernadette’s midlife crisis (again, the usage of the unbalanced nature of mental illness) by casting a sympathetic light on her. Thus, despite the movie being quite bland, Blanchett’s performance as Bernadette is rather good. Sure, it won’t top any of her other memorable past performances in her career, but she definitely makes the character her own from the inane quirks to the snarky banter.
Behind her, actress Emma Nelson (Margaret and the Moon) and actor Billy Crudup (Watchmen and Jackie) lend credence to their respective as Bernadette’s daughter (Bee Branch) and husband (Elgin Branch). To be sure, these characters play a vital importance in the movie as Bernadette’s family members and certainly showcase a different side to the fractured artist. With Nelson’s Bee, the character shows more a warmth and security in showcasing a mother /daughter relationship (I do like how Nelson and Blanchett interact with each other), while Crudup’s Elgin presents the “touch and go” problematic areas of struggling with marriage (for better or worse). Looking beyond Bernadette’s family, the only really one that has an interesting prospect humanization is in the character of Audrey Griffin, Bernadette’s pretentious neighbor, who is played by actress Kristen Wig (Bridesmaid and Saturday Night Live). Yes, the character is merely window-dressing for the feature’s story, but it’s fun role for Wig to play, who (in turn) is a perfect fit as Audrey.
The rest of the cast, including actress Judy Greer (13 Going on 30 and 27 Dresses) as Dr. Kurtz, actor Laurence Fishburne (The Matrix Trilogy and John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum) as Paul Jellinek, actor Steve Zahn (Sahara and War for the Planet of the Apes) as David Walker, and actress Megan Mullally (Will and Grace and Why Him?) as Judy Toll, are more in minor supporting character roles, but are totally wasted on this project. Sure, all of these acting talents are of quality and sure to bring a screen presence whenever on-screen, but the movie never truly utilizes them (as well as several others characters) and just merely caricatures to the character of Bernadette’s persona framework or her strange predicament.
In search of change and inspiration, Bernadette Fox takes drastic measures to escape her mundane life of boredom in the film Where’d You Go, Bernadette. Director Richard Linklater’s latest movie takes author’s Maria Semple bestselling novel into a cinematic light; providing a centerpiece story of rediscovering a person’s purpose within a midlife crisis. Unfortunately, despite having a solid performance from actress Cate Blanchett and vaguely interesting narrative (most thanks to Semple’s source material), majority of the film just feels uninspiring dull and, with an uneven pacing, dry comedy beats, a little corny / unrealistic sequences, a bit melodramatic, a wasted talent on weak characters, and a rather poorly handled direction (confusing to say the least) simply can’t escape an inconsistent format from start to finish. To me, this movie was just a snoozer. Yes, I loved Blanchett in the role, but majority of feature is just a perplexing and a bit off-putting as if the movie itself never finds the actually footing that it wants to stand on. The intent is there, but just woefully unfit and disappointing. Thus, my recommendation for this movie is a definite “skip it” as it really doesn’t wield strong results in its entertainment value…. even if you are a fan of Semple’s popular novel. In the end, while Hollywood will continue to “buy up” the rights to “bestselling novels” for feature film adaptations, Where’d You Go, Bernadette is just a messy movie that (much like the title character) never sure of where it wants to go.
2.3 Out of 5 (Skip It)
Released On: August 16th, 2019
Reviewed On: September 11th, 2019
Where’d You Go, Bernadette is 130 minutes and is rated PG-13 for some strong language and drug material