Cate Blanchett is a tour-de-force in new film
This week, Jonathan Schumann returns to Arts and Leisure. Jonathan, who shared this column with his dad, Mark Schumann, from 1999 to 2006, now lives in New York City.
When Maria Semple’s absurdist comic novel “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” came out in 2012, it was an immediate hit with the hipster lit set. Both a satire of the Seattle yuppy tech scene and a portrait of a creative genius trying to get her groove back, it’s a quippy, snarky and pleasant-enough diversion.
Everything that makes “Bernadette” work as a book makes it an unlikely candidate for cinematic adaptation. In addition to its tricky tone (a mix of acerbic wit and pathos), the comic set pieces could easily feel ridiculous on screen (a hillside collapses into a house hosting a posh fundraiser; extended sequences in Antarctica of all places). The main character also has a close relationship with her digital personal assistant, which Semple portrays solely in email exchanges.
It’s not a huge surprise, then, that director Richard Linklater’s struggle with the material feels present on screen, both in the new film’s uneven tone and choppy flow. Though not without its charms — due largely to a tour-de-force performance from Cate Blanchett — the overall product feels strained and often lacks cohesion.
Bernadette Fox (Blanchett) is a once-famous architect now living a semi-reclusive existence in Seattle with her computer programmer husband (Billy Crudup, at his most smug and detached) and precocious daughter Bee (newcomer Emma Nelson). Their house is an architectural oddity that’s come to embody Bernadette’s frayed mental state — all overgrown bushes, peeling wallpaper, and leaky ceilings. Bee is about to finish up middle school and as a reward for her great grades she’s asked for a trip to Antarctica, which immediately triggers Bernadette’s anxiety. As the trip nears, the increasingly unstable Bernadette teeters towards total breakdown, until one day, she disappears (hence the film’s title).
Bernadette is a refreshingly complex and unsympathetic screen heroine, and as embodied like a pro like Blanchett, she’s a force of nature. She jolts from scene-to-scene with an air of unearned superiority, unrealized potential, and frayed emotional stability. In this way she resembles the title character Blanchett created in “Blue Jasmine,” complete with the popping of a Xanax and the unconvincing insistence that she’s fine.
The trouble with Blanchett’s magnetic screen presence is that, as dictated by the film’s title, she has to leave us at some point. Linklater is clearly at a loss for how to proceed and the film veers entirely off the rails as it tries to cope with her absence. That we end up at the ends of the earth searching for her is an apt metaphor for a film that’s backed into a corner with no plausible way out.
Streaming pick: “Bandits”
There’s a scene in “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” where the title character and Bee lip sync a Cyndi Lauper song together in the car — it’s a great bonding moment that recalls another moment in Cate Blanchett cinematic lip syncing, where she lets loose to Bonnie Tyler’s “I Need a Hero” in this diverting comedy. She’s a dull housewife who’s willfully kidnapped by a pair of bank-robbing brothers (Billy Bob Thornton and Bruce Willis). Felonies and a love triangle ensues.
“Where’d You Go, Bernadette” is rated PG-13 for “some strong language and drug material.” The film runs 2 hours, 10 minutes.