'Bernadette' Is A Stirring Tribute To A Woman Rediscovering Her True Calling

Aug 16, 2019
Originally published on August 20, 2019 9:36 am

The writer-director Richard Linklater has said that he cast Cate Blanchett in his new comedy, Where'd You Go, Bernadette, because, in his words, "only a genius can portray a genius believably."

Whether you agree with that or not, it's hard to deny that Blanchett was the right genius for the role of Bernadette Fox, the central character in this delightful and eccentric adaptation of Maria Semple's 2012 novel. Notably, this is the first Linklater movie to feature a solo female lead, and Bernadette instantly emerges as one of the most vibrant and complex characters in the director's filmography.

Bernadette is a brilliant, legendary architect who once designed an eco-friendly modernist home built completely from materials sourced within a 20-mile radius. But that was two decades ago, before she hit a major slump, and she hasn't created anything since. Now she lives in Seattle, in an enormous ramshackle house with her husband, Elgie, and their teenage daughter, Bee.

Their life together seems chaotic but reasonably happy at first. Billy Crudup makes a nice voice of sanity as Elgie, a Microsoft tech visionary who helps keep his wife grounded. Bee, played by a winning newcomer named Emma Nelson, is plucky and smart, and she has managed to talk her parents into going on a family vacation to Antarctica before she departs for an elite boarding school.

But all is not well with Bernadette, who loves her family but can't stand anyone else. Sporting a brown bob, she likes to hide behind dark sunglasses and look the other way when she's approached by adoring fans or local busybodies — like her overbearing neighborhood nemesis, Audrey, played by a terrific Kristen Wiig.

In addition to her antisocial streak, Bernadette suffers severe anxiety attacks and may or may not be hooked on prescription meds. Blanchett gives a splendidly mercurial performance: At times Bernadette's nerves are so raw and exposed that she might remind you of the desperately neurotic widow the actress played — and won an Oscar for — in Blue Jasmine.

The script, which Linklater wrote with Holly Gent and Vincent Palmo Jr., has a shambling but tightly plotted structure that keeps throwing you off-balance. Bernadette can be acerbic, tender, charming and maddening, sometimes all at once, and it's both funny and painful to watch Blanchett strip away the character's psychological defenses, layer by fragile layer.

As singular as Bernadette is, she feels distantly related to all the marginalized misfits and wayward souls Linklater has gravitated toward in movies as different as Slacker and School of Rock. The director also has an instinctive affection for artists, and you can feel his sympathy and his respect for Bernadette surging through every scene. She may be a misanthrope, but she's a misanthrope you can't help but love, whether she's launching into one anguished verbal aria after another or dictating lengthy, punctuation-free emails to her virtual personal assistant.

Some of those devices come straight from the novel, which was written in an epistolary format, its story pieced together from letters, emails and other documents. The movie is more conventionally constructed, and in some ways it feels like a lark for Linklater — a zippy, lightweight diversion compared with the more audacious dramatic experiments of Boyhood and the romantic trilogy that began with Before Sunrise. But in its own way, this story is also about the passage of time, the way life can thwart an artist's hopes and dreams.

The title of Where'd You Go, Bernadette asks what happened to the brilliant creative force Bernadette used to be. But it also takes on a more literal meaning when she escapes an intervention that her husband, concerned about her increasingly erratic behavior, has arranged. Bernadette goes on that trip to Antarctica by herself, and Elgie and Bee chase after her; much beautifully controlled chaos ensues. The third act sends the characters through a whirlwind of farcical twists and emotional reckonings, but it also becomes a genuinely stirring tribute to a woman rediscovering her true calling in the unlikeliest place imaginable. The gorgeous polar scenery becomes a chilly backdrop for one of the sweetest movie endings I've seen this year.

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DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. In "Where'd You Go, Bernadette?" - the new movie by Richard Linklater - Cate Blanchett plays a once-famous architect who's been stuck in a creative rut for 20 years. The movie is an adaptation of a novel by Maria Semple and also features performances by Billy Crudup, Emma Nelson, Kristen Wiig and Laurence Fishburne. Film critic Justin Chang has this review.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: The writer-director Richard Linklater has said that he cast Cate Blanchett in his new comedy, "Where'd You Go, Bernadette?" because in his words, only a genius can portray a genius believably. Whether you agree with that or not, it's hard to deny that Blanchett was the right genius for the role of Bernadette Fox, the central character in this delightful and eccentric adaptation of Maria Semple's 2012 novel.

Notably, this is the first Linklater movie to feature a solo female lead, and Bernadette instantly emerges as one of the most vibrant and complicated characters in the director's filmography. She's a brilliant, legendary architect, who once designed an eco-friendly modernist home built completely from materials sourced within a 20-mile radius. But that was two decades ago, before she hit a major slump, and she hasn't designed anything since.

Now Bernadette lives in Seattle, in an enormous ramshackle house with her husband Elgie and their teenage daughter Bee. Their life together seems chaotic but reasonably happy at first. Billy Crudup makes a nice voice of sanity as Elgie, a Microsoft tech visionary who helps keep his wife grounded. Bee, played by a winning newcomer named Emma Nelson, is plucky and smart, and she's managed to talk her parents into going on a family vacation to Antarctica before she departs for an elite boarding school.

But all is not well with Bernadette, who loves her family, but can't stand anyone else. Sporting a brown bob of hair, she likes to hide behind dark sunglasses and look the other way when she's approached by adoring fans or local busybodies, like her overbearing neighborhood nemesis Audrey, played by a terrific Kristen Wiig. In addition to her anti-social streak, Bernadette suffers severe anxiety attacks and may or may not be hooked on prescription meds.

Blanchett gives a splendidly mercurial performance. At times, Bernadette's nerves are so raw and exposed that she might remind you of the desperately neurotic widow the actress played and won an Oscar for in "Blue Jasmine." The script, which Linklater wrote with Holly Gent and Vincent Palmo Jr., has a shambling but tightly plotted structure that keeps throwing you off balance.

Bernadette can be acerbic, tender, charming and maddening, sometimes all at once. And it's both funny and painful to watch Blanchett strip away the character's psychological defenses layer by fragile layer.

We see just how vulnerable Bernadette can be in one scene, when she's driving her daughter home through a rainstorm. Bee is choreographing an elephant-themed dance for a first grade performance, and Bernadette is eager to attend. It's at this moment in the car that an impromptu Cyndi Lauper singalong breaks out, and Bernadette starts to choke up.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WHERE'D YOU GO, BERNADETTE?")

CATE BLANCHETT AND EMMA NELSON: (As Bernadette Fox and Bee Branch, singing) If you're lost you can look and you will find me time after time. If you fall, I will catch you. I will be waiting time after time.

CATE BLANCHETT: (As Bernadette Fox) Oh, Bee.

EMMA NELSON: (As Bee Branch) See, Mom? This is why I don't want you to come to the elephant dance.

BLANCHETT: (As Bernadette Fox) I just need you to know how hard it is for me sometimes.

NELSON: (As Bee Branch) What's hard?

BLANCHETT: (As Bernadette Fox) The banality of life. But I retain the right to be incredibly moved by those little things no one notices, you know, for better and worse. It's not going to stop me taking you to the South Pole.

NELSON: (As Bee Branch) We're not going to the South Pole, Mom.

BLANCHETT: (As Bernadette Fox) We're not?

NELSON: (As Bee Branch) No, the only place tourists go is the Antarctic Peninsula. Only researchers and scientists go as far as the South Pole.

CHANG: As singular as Bernadette is, she feels distantly related to all the marginalized misfits and wayward souls Linklater has gravitated toward in movies as different as "Slacker" and "School Of Rock." The director also has an instinctive affection for artists, and you can feel his sympathy and his respect for Bernadette surging through every scene. She may be a misanthrope, but she's a misanthrope you can't help but love, whether she's launching into one anguished verbal aria after another or dictating lengthy, punctuation-free emails to her virtual personal assistant.

Some of those devices come straight from the novel, which was written in an epistolary format, it's story pieced together from letters, emails and other documents. The movie is more conventionally constructed. And in some ways, it feels like a lark for Linklater, a zippy, lightweight diversion compared with the more audacious, dramatic experiments of "Boyhood" and the romantic trilogy that began with "Before Sunrise." But in its own way, this is also a story about the passage of time, the way life can thwart an artist's hopes and dreams.

The title of "Where'd You Go, Bernadette," asks what happened to the brilliant, creative force Bernadette used to be, but it also takes on a more literal meaning when she escapes an intervention that her husband has arranged, concerned about her increasingly erratic behavior. Bernadette goes on that trip to Antarctica by herself, and Elgie and Bee chase after her. Much beautifully controlled chaos ensues.

The third act sends the characters through a whirlwind of farcical twists and emotional reckonings, but it also becomes a genuinely stirring tribute to a woman rediscovering her true calling in the unlikeliest place imaginable. The gorgeous polar scenery becomes a chilly backdrop for one of the sweetest movie endings I've seen this year.

BIANCULLI: Justin Chang is a film critic for the LA Times. On Monday's show, our guest will be underwater explorer and photographer Jill Heinerth. She's dived into unmapped caves deep in the earth and into the crevices of an iceberg. She's seen hidden creatures old as dinosaurs and scenes of surreal beauty. Her work is so dangerous a hundred of her friends and colleagues have died in dives. She has a new book. Hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVE HOLLAND AND PEPE HABICHUELA'S "JOYRIDE")

BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our engineer today is Charlie Kaier. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVE HOLLAND AND PEPE HABICHUELA'S "JOYRIDE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.