Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Fri Aug 16, 2019 8:04 am 
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CATE BLANCHETT GOES ANNA WINTOUR IN WHERE'D YOU GO, BERNADETTE

Finding your bliss - but losing the edge

Richard Linklater has tackled many different projects as a director but what he's taken on here - a literary adaptation - of the bestselling epistolary novel, Where'd You Go, Bernadette - sill seems unlikely. The theme is an uplifting one: the importance of exercising one's creative skills, especially if they're considerable. The action follows Bernadette (Cate Blanchett), a brilliant architect from Los Angeles, as she's led back to practicing her special craft after twenty years of oblivion and increasing nuttiness. The movie is lively and sometimes engaging, the characters quirky and appealing. But the source material is watered down. Edge has been lost, and much detail.

The source novel by Arrested Development writer Maria Semple is a sharp and witty satire. It's epistolary in a modern sense: a collage of notes, blogs, texts, emails, transcripts - and a quite brilliant and hilarious TED Talk, cut to one minute here. It embodies some pretty barbed (if not unloving) lampooning and lambasting of the city of Seattle, where Bernadette followed her husband Elgin or Elgie (Billy Crudup) two decades earlier when he sold his computer animation system to Microsoft and went to work for them administering its development. Seattle is where the action mostly takes place, along with Antarctica, where in the last third the principals, Bernadette, Elgie and their teen daughter Bee (excellent newcomer Emma Nelson) all go on a cruise.

Of course the chief vehicle for the satire, the epistolary collage element, is lost, as it would have to be if this were not to become six hours long and full of multiple voiceovers. (That's one thing that makes this unlikely for a film adaptation by anybody, though it's also specifically unlikely for Linklater, who's not a sharp, barbed satire kind of guy.) Another thing abandoned or sidetracked is the centrality of Bee, the 14-year-old, a frail baby with a heart problem, brilliant, about to go away to prep school, to Choate Rosemary Hall, emulating her parents: it's she who presents the epistolary assemblage after it's sent to her by a hostile neighbor, Aubrey (Kristen Wiig), who like much here, is softened and made eventually friendly. Bee is less central because - big surprise, and greatest distortion - Bernadette, in the person of Cate Blanchett, never disappears, despite the title. That is, she does, for Bee and Elgie and others who go looking for her. But her "disappearance" isn't, for us, since she's hardly ever off the screen. So the "mystery" element is lost.

Another loss is caused by the softening of Elgie, which leaves Billy Crudup with a less complex character than he ought to be playing, because Elgie in the novel is as weird and self-absorbed as Bernadette, who has become agoraphobic (if she wasn't always) and a pill-hoarder (those elements are very present in the movie). Only while Bernadette has given up her very creative, problem-solving, "green before green" architectural projects (the Twenty Mile House, whose cooption by a rich bloke triggered her disillusion, is described in the movie) - while Elgie is is a workaholic with little time for anything else. That is alluded to in the movie, but in such a gentle way. You can't soften what's not soft.

In the event, the sequences of "intervention" where a therapist, an aide of Elgie's, and an FBI man are called in to propose Bernadette undergo psychological treatment become more earnest and less hysterical than they are in the book.

That about sums up the most important ways that Linklater's adaptation (with Holly Ghent and Vincent Palmo Jr.) deviates from the novel and loses its specificity and edge. Note how Moira Macdonald of the Seattle Times points out the way the movie loses all the Seattle satire that made the book "irresistible" and Samantha Vincente in Oprah Magazine recounts how the movie "leaves out the book's best bits" including "a major subplot" concerning Elgie and his administrative assistant Soo-Lin (Zoe Chao) whose duties, shall we say, are cut back here.

When we've got all this in mind, it's pretty damning. The movie is still enjoyable, if you just want to while away a couple of hours. One thing constantly alluded to and captured in the scenes of Emma Nelson and Cate Blanchett together is the warm friendship of Bee and her mom. As I am not the first to note, a highlight of the film is the scene were they sing "Time After Time" together driving along in Bernadette's big posh black Jaguar. It's a magic moment. I loved the exterior shots of Antarctica. The notion of kayaking among big chunks of ice also was magical.

Where'd You Go, Barnadette, 130 mins., releases Aug. 16, 2019. Metascore 52%.

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