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Blanchett fun but ‘Bernadette’ lacking

Actress wants film to inspire women to share their failures

This image provided by Annapurna Pictures shows Cate Blanchett as Bernadette Fox in Richard Linklater’s ‘Where’d You Go, Bernadette’, an Annapurna Pictures release. (AP)

The
idea behind “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” is tantalizing – a woman goes missing
and her 15-year-old daughter tries to piece together where she went. In the
process, the daughter discovers a whole wonderful life that she knew nothing
about – that her shut-in, agoraphobic mother who delegates all tasks to a
virtual assistant in India and quarrels with the mothers at the local school
was once an exceptional MacArthur Grant-winning architect who quit designing
after a professional embarrassment.

But something was lost in translation in the adaptation of
Maria Semple’s novel for the big screen, despite having everything going for
it: solid source material; a prestige cast led by Cate Blanchett and Billy
Crudup; a humane and empathic director in Richard Linklater; and a studio
(Annapurna) known for giving filmmakers all the freedom they need.

In the book, Bernadette’s daughter Bee
learns about her enigmatic mother after her disappearance. But the film takes
that premise away and instead plops us down with Bernadette Fox (Blanchett),
her tech whiz husband Elgin (Crudup) and Bee (charming newcomer Emma Nelson) to
follow her descent in what feels like real time. It’s obviously necessary to
streamline some things when adapting an entire novel into a movie but this
takes all the mystery out of it and it’s hard not to wonder what the film would
have been had they stuck closer to the book’s construction.

As it stands, the disappearance under
investigation is less literal and more of an exploration into what happened to
make Bernadette the way she is. Bedecked in unassumingly expensive wares and
big oval sunglasses, Bernadette is just a few shades away from going full “Grey
Gardens” when we meet her.

She and Elgin and Bee live in a disheveled mansion on top of
a messy hillside in a wealthy Seattle neighborhood. The disorder drives her
nosy neighbor Audrey (Kristen Wiig) crazy, but Bernadette hardly cares: She
hates people and going places and doing things. So it comes as a true shock to
Bee and Elgin when she agrees to plan a trip to Antarctica as a reward for
Bee’s academic successes.

But she starts to agonize about the trip as soon as she says
yes to it. The Amazon boxes stacking up around her with all the “necessities”
for the voyage aren’t even hopeful – they come to symbolize the things that
will only weigh her down further. It’s pleasant enough joining Blanchett –
snarky, manic and in a full on depression that she can reasonably
compartmentalize as a necessary byproduct of her own intelligence – going about
her business: Quarrelling with neighbors and trying to convince pharmacists to
give her far-too-strong drugs all while attempting to maintain a connection
with Bee.

Stunning

Yet the extreme quirkiness of this
wealthy family starts to wear thin and you feel like you’re just treading
water, surviving only on the charm of the actors, the truly stunning production
design and the occasionally great line (many of which go to Blanchett but some
also to Laurence Fishburne who finally gets the real story out of Bernadette
and tells her that artists who stop creating become a menace to society).

And perhaps that’s enough for a pleasant
watch, but I found myself unmoved by Bernadette’s stasis, her on-the-rocks
marriage and even her quest to get her creative spark back. The most
emotionally resonant part for me came compliments of Wiig’s character Audrey,
who seems like a caricature of a perfect mom for most of the film until she
hits you with an unexpected bit of humanity. But it’s hardly enough to make the
film the life-affirming journey it thinks it is.

And besides, a Linklakter and Blanchett collaboration should
be more than passable.

“You know what I find really refreshing?” Blanchett asked. “I
don’t know if you find it refreshing, but I do – that women are having dialogue
with one another and they’re sharing their their failures, and how to navigate
their way through the mess of daily, domestic lives.”

Speaking to Variety at a special screening of her upcoming
film “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?” on Monday evening at the Metrograph Theater
in New York City, the Oscar winner shared what drew her to the flawed,
multi-layered and complex character she portrays in the film.

For Blanchett, who she collaborates with is of utmost
importance, even ahead of the roles she takes on. So when “Where’d You Go,
Bernadette?” came across her lap, she jumped at the chance to work with
Linklater and Semple.

“For me, filmmaking is all about who
you’re in conversation with, so to be in conversation with both of those
people, the role was kind of secondary,” Blanchett said. “But, it’s such an
incredible role, and so full of heart. Richard is a very soulful filmmaker, and
I think that for all of Maria’s comedic relentlessness – which is so glorious –
there’s a deep soul there, too.”

“What I find really poignant about Bernadette is these crazy,
absurd monologues and this relationship that she has with a virtual assistant
is because she’s so isolated,” she explained. “I think that is something that
people don’t often talk about in the notion of motherhood – you can be in a
really happy, successful relationship, but still feel really alone.”

“She’s got a monumental professional failure that she’s just
not addressing at all, and as a result, she’s turning into a menace,” Blanchett
continued. “I think women talking about their failures and their fears is
something really great to drive into. And it’s right for comedy and for drama.”

Linklater said he was interested in adapting Semple’s novel
because of the character and, like Blanchett, the director and writer was drawn
to Bernadette’s flaws. “Her utter complexity as an artist who’s lost her way
for very complex reasons, I just felt a lot of humor in her and it’s a very
poignant story.” (Agencies)

By Lindsey Bahr

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