A minor character near the end of Maria Semple’s 2012 novel Where’d You Go, Bernadette says that she’s “partial to weirdos, enigmas, and geniuses.” The same might be said of director Richard Linklater, whose breakout 1990 film Slacker certainly contained all three, and many of his subsequent films—from Dazed and Confused to Waking Life to School of Rock—center on quirky characters. His new adaptation of Semple’s bestseller, starring Cate Blanchett as quirky genius Bernadette Fox, is no exception, and it hits screens nationwide today.
Both the film and its source tell the story of Bernadette, her teenage daughter Balakrishna “Bee” Branch, and her husband, Elgin Branch, a robotics engineer at Microsoft—who’s also a genius. It’s told through a scattered mishmash of Bee’s narration, various characters’ emails, FBI reports, a magazine article, a TED Talk transcription, and on and on. Bernadette is an architect who’s most famous for a project called the 20 Mile House, an experimental project in which all the building materials were sourced with a 20-mile radius of the building itself. (For this, she got a MacArthur “Genius” Grant—there’s that word again.) After it was built and hailed as a work of… well, you know… it ended up being bought by a wealthy neighbor/enemy, who tore it down. Bernadette never got over this, and never designed another building; she and Elgin moved to Seattle, which she quickly grew to hate, and there, Bernadette had multiple miscarriages before having Bee, who was born with a defective heart. They all live in a crumbling old house, where she has an ongoing feud with another neighbor, Audrey Griffin. Her erratic behavior, which leads her to getting duped by an identity thief, results in Elgin staging an intervention. Bernadette escapes by secretly traveling to Antarctica—a trip that the family had previously planned; there, she becomes inspired again by a new architectural project. The family eventually reconciles—in a jarringly heartwarming fashion.
The book’s Bernadette is really quite horrible. She repeatedly complains about the inconvenient presence of “homeless bums” and other non-wealthy types who don’t measure up to her standards; in one revealing moment, she sneers in annoyance at a “Seattle-born secretary.” She mocks people in a restaurant—behind their backs, of course—for not knowing what mole is, and then mocks their tattoos, for good measure. Early on, after telling Bee that they must “bear witness” to people less fortunate than themselves, she switches off an NPR radio report about women being repeatedly raped by soldiers in the Congo, saying, “Holy Christ on a cross!...I draw the line at re-raping.” (Semple has Bee revisit the “re-raping” line a few paragraphs later; for some reason, the author thought it was worth repeating.) And through it all, it’s clear that the author intends readers to be on Bernadette’s side—or at least find her amusing. But, as Kirkus’ reviewer in 2012 sharply observed, “Bernadette may be brilliant and funny, but she is also mean-spirited and self-absorbed, with a definite case of entitlement that the author too frequently seems to share.”
The movie version of Bernadette is markedly less mean-spirited and self-absorbed, apparently in order to keep moviegoers from disgustedly fleeing the theater. It certainly doesn’t hurt that the enormously appealing Blanchett plays her with gusto, although the script sometimes forces her to dictate reams of text, taken nearly verbatim from Bernadette’s voluminous emails in Semple’s novel. Unfortunately, not even a multiple Oscar-winner can make dictation cinematic.
Linklater and his co-screenwriters, Holly Gent and Vince Palmo, do their best to make other characters more appealing, as well. For instance, their version of Elgin, as played by Billy Crudup, apparently doesn’t have an affair with his administrative assistant (the “Seattle-born secretary” mentioned above). They also excise Audrey’s hypocritical religiosity. They even, oddly, make Bee healthier—not once, for example, is newcomer Emma Nelson required to cough up phlegm. One wonders if the filmmakers received a list of studio notes that boiled down to Can’t you make these people more pleasant?
Perhaps that’s what delayed the release of this movie, which was originally intended to open in May 2018, but was pushed no less than four times. The kinder, gentler result is still likely to appeal to fans of the novel, and hardcore Blanchett-ites certainly won’t be disappointed. But all the other weirdos, enigmas, and geniuses out there will likely find somewhere else to go.
David Rapp is the senior Indie editor.