Liz Yanders reviews Cate Blanchette’s new movie…
The first thing Where’d you go, Bernadette does wrong is advertise itself as a movie it’s not. The trailer leads us to believe Bernadette Fox (Cate Blanchett) is a successful cutting edge architect—short bob, big sunglasses, artsy scarf and all. She strolls through impressive innovative architecture as if she owns the place and announces she’s ready for her second act.
Haven’t we all asked ourselves, “Where’d you go, Bernadette?” What happened to our young carefree selves, the person before we became a wife/mother, husband/father? When we were someone other than what we ended up being because life hadn’t yet forced us to grow up and pay the mortgage. When the Pink Floyd song asks, did you exchange a walk on part in the war, for a lead role in a cage? most everyone will answer, “Yes.”
A friend and I both have grown children and are in our second act. The trailer advertised in big bold letters, “Find What Makes You, You.” We went to see Bernadette find her way back to her in a movie about us. Instead, we find the great architect and her family live in the abandoned Addam’s Family house that overlooks the ocean on a hill in Seattle. It could be a showplace, but step inside and it’s a shambles even though she’s had twenty years to remodel. It’s the first hint something is wrong. No, the modern kitchen advertised is not in that gloomy home, and there’s no trace of the Zombies singing their 1964 hit, “She’s Not There.” We’ve been lied to.
It doesn’t take long to discover the family is not the lighthearted connected souls at the breakfast table. Although Bernadette’s playfully snaps her husband’s, Elgie (Billy Crudup), suspenders right in front of our eyes, they’re not remotely a team or man and wife. Bernadette hasn’t worked in twenty years. The closest she’s come to being an artist is mixing her medicine together because the different colors look good.
Despite her daughter’s, Bee (Emma Nelson), claim that, “She got so focused on her family, she forgot about herself,” Bernadette thinks mostly of herself. She checked out of mainstream life long ago, and depends on an online service to grocery shop, pickup dry-cleaning, clothes shop and anything else that requires being around people or making decisions.
Wacky Bernadette’s first problem concerns a next-door neighbor, Audrey (Kristen Wiig), who doesn’t like a mass of blackberries overtaking her yard. Look, if you live in Missouri long enough, you’d recognize those plants aren’t blackberries, not even thornless blackberries. So, why not just name the plant? AND that’s what the script does again and again, force things on us we can’t believe. Not in a fun Freaky Friday sort of way, because Bernadette can’t decide if it’s a lighthearted Disney movie or A Woman Under the Influence, a movie about a volatile woman whose behavior convinces her husband she’s a threat to herself and those around her. It’s tough to jump between wacky and unstable Bernadette, or identify which is on the screen at any moment.
Bernadette cries while her daughter accompanies little children with a flute. We can’t buy Bernadette’s tears although her daughter claims her mother feels “too deep” to be at school functions. She speeds away before that persistent PTA mother asks if she’ll help at school. And why is that disappointing? Because Bernadette isn’t like her target audience. Women, who’ve helped at every school carnival, devoted their time to be Den mothers and Girl Scout leaders, sold cookies, candy, gift wrap and anything else when asked.
When she interacts with people, it’s clear she doesn’t care if she’s liked. She comes across as an angry woman whose spiteful snippets are only funny to her. That makes her not particularly likable to people who have held their tongues many times because success requires tact.
Is she an eccentric? Does her chemical imbalance make her this way? Or is it because her husband is a lead software engineer for Microsoft and they have so much money (except none to fix their house) there’s no need to work another day of her life?
The FBI show up. Turns out the company Bernadette uses to accomplish her everyday tasks are actually Russians scheming to take the family’s money. She’s given them all the passwords and numbers they need to wipe out their accounts. Thing is, they’re coming to America to do it, and that’s where the subplot gets hokey.
The Russians have accessed the accounts. They’ve used them to pay for Bernadette’s orders. Why do they need to land in New York City? Thieves need not be in a certain place to steal your credit card or clean out your accounts. In fact, you don’t know where they are. All you know is you’re on the phone with the fraud department contesting hotel rooms, flights to Vegas, and $1.99 earbuds charged for the inflight movies on the way. So, why not cancel the credit cards and change the account numbers like everybody else? Oh, that’s right, the FBI want to catch them, that’s why they have to come to America, but what’s Bernadette’s part?
We never see the bad Russians. The entire subplot encompasses maybe seven sentences, wrapped up with the FBI saying something like, “They picked the Russians up at the airport. Your accounts are safe.” It’s the best the writer could come up with to give Bernadette’s husband a reason to have her committed, and to give Bernadette a reason to leave. Never mind the two decades he could have addressed her crippling mental state. He only takes action when his wealth is jeopardized and the FBI tell him he needs to do something.
My sister orders her groceries online, yet it’s never spurred a family intervention. And just because someone steals your credit card, doesn’t mean you need to be committed. It means someone has stolen your credit card. But wait; even though the FBI and several other strangers are a part of the intervention, nothing’s been stolen. It’s as if Bernadette’s real problems are too much for a Disney movie to handle.
The daughter and mother relationship is believable, especially when the neighbor badmouths Bernadette and Bee stands up for her mother. The movie goes overboard explaining why they’re close. Bernadette had several miscarriages before her daughter was born. Her daughter has a heart problem. Her father has been MIA at work during her childhood. Any of those could have been enough reason for them to be close. However, their closeness isn’t on Bernadette’s mind when she climbs out the window. Bee forgives her immediately and says, “We’ve got to find her,” followed by, “She knows what she’s doing,” followed by, “We’ve got to find her.”
What would have made the movie believable? Experiencing Bernadette’s passion, genius and triumph as an architect, followed by the devastating loss that forms the fragile person seen on screen. The audience would have an emotional investment in her recovery. As is, past events that frame her persona is offered in a four-minute flashback halfway through the movie.
We could have cheered her on if we were there to experience her comeback. At the point the family reconnects and a turnaround might happen, the movie is over. We see magnificent architecture during the end credits, but where’s Bernadette? Once again, we’ve missed out on the meat that fuels the artist and the movie.
Perhaps the biggest problem is how well Cate Blanchett plays all of Bernadette’s incarnations. Her acting during the intervention scene recalls a young Merle Streep in any dramatic role in which she’s won an Oscar. Her aloneness and desperation in a room full of strangers deciding her fate makes her even more fragile. She should win an Oscar for that scene alone…if they dropped it into another movie. Sadly, Blanchett’s great performance gives the movie its fatal flaw. She makes us not believe Bernadette capable of succeeding in the world alone, or able to cure herself by herself.
Did the director arrange the movie the same as the book it’s based on? I’m not curious enough to buy the book. No Bernadette, don’t go out that bathroom window. Don’t escape. Honey, you and your movie need help.