Whered You Go, Bernadette? Is at Cate Blanchetts Command

 newyorker.com  08/16/2019 09:00:36   Anthony Lane

Cate Blanchett plays a mysterious, troubled woman in Richard Linklaters film.

Illustration by Nhung L

In 2005, the Academy Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Rolewhat a mouthfulwent to Cate Blanchett, for playing Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator, opposite Leonardo DiCaprio, as Howard Hughes. Arent we a fine pair of misfits? Hepburn asks him, more amused than rattled by his wealth, and casually trouncing him at golf. What defeats Hughes is not her short game so much as the fade of her long and lofted vowels. As youd expect, these are feigned to perfection by Blanchett, though the film doesnt allow her portrayal of Hepburn to be much more than a star turn, and we are left wondering: Could Blanchett conjure up the spirit of her predecessorthat earthy air, both queenly and puckishwithout recourse to impersonation?

The answer is yes, and the proof is Whered You Go, Bernadette?, which is directed by Richard Linklater, adapted from the novel by Maria Semple, and set in the present day. Blanchett takes the part of Bernadette Fox, who lives with her husband, Elgie Branch (Billy Crudup), their teen-age daughter, Bee (Emma Nelson), and a golden retriever named Ice Cream. Bernadette has crisply cut dark hair, a smile loaded with mischief, and a Garbo-like penchant for shadesthough not to ward off the sun, because she lives in Seattle, or to deter the inquisitive, because shes not (as far as we can tell) a celebrity. So what does she need to hide? A roll call of her faults, which include impatience, discourtesy, and a temper as short as a butt end, suggests a bit of a monster, yet our gaze is trapped and held by her every move, and, whatever may be raging within her, it isnt rage. Youve got fires banked down in you, James Stewart famously said to Hepburn, in The Philadelphia Story (1940), and thats how we feel about Bernadette, though Elgie is rather less awed. Stop turning everything into a joke, he says. Why cant you get along with anyone?

Because she isnt just anyone, thats why. Little by little, we become aware that our heroine was once a figure of note. Long ago, she was a much lauded architect, and we hear from a few of her peers, who testify to the flair of her innovations. But some calamity struck, Bernadette renounced her calling, and she and the family now inhabit a hefty old wreck of a house on a hill. Water drips, creepers writhe beneath the rug, and, I for one, was hoping to see a ghost. (To some extent, my wish is granted: Bernadette, hounded by insomnia, prowls around by night.) The mansion comes across as a theatre of organic decay, in deliberate contrast to Elgies office environment. He works at Microsoft, developing Samantha 2, an adhesive patch that, once stuck to your brow, relays your thoughts onscreen. I was waiting for the patch to join the plot, spilling secret truths at tricky moments, but, for some reason, Samantha2 keeps shtum.

Nobody else displays the same discretion. Whered You Go, Bernadette? is a gabfest, honoring the chatter of its source. The book was a choppy read, stuffed with e-mails, blog posts, and other ephemera, and the film, likewise, finds room for video clips, talking heads, and messages dictated by a flustered Bernadette to her all-purpose assistant, based in India; Bees voice-over, pensive but unnecessary, tops and tails the whole thing. The flimsiest sections of the novel were the swipes of social satire, aimed at easy targets (how difficult is it, really, to bring helicopter parents crashing down?), and the movie follows suit. Kristen Wiig does what she can with the role of Audrey, the Branches neighbor, who hires a blackberry abatement specialist to probe the undergrowth between their homes, and fights to maintain what she calls the correctitude of the local school. Its a Kenyan pop song, she declares, heralding the tuneless yowls of an all-white junior choir.

From Slacker (1990) onward, Linklater has been at his most fruitful when hanging out in his native Texas, so its disorienting, to say the least, that his latest film should begin at the bottom of the world. The opening shot shows Bernadette in a kayak, drifting amid the icebergs of Antarctica, and the movie returns there for its final act. We even get a southbound chase, of sorts, the object of which is to meld her family together and, in the process, thaw the frosty hearts of moviegoers. Some of these far-flung scenes seem oddly muffled and rushed, and fans of the book may worry that Linklater was the wrong person to bring it to the screen, yet heres the thing: Whered You Go, Bernadette? has to be seen, and demands to be believed, because of Cate Blanchett. Like Blue Jasmine (2013), which earned her a second Oscar, this new film lies at her command.

The most potent sequence, to my eyes, is the plainest. In a Seattle caf, Bernadette bumps into a former colleague, Paul Jellinek (Laurence Fishburne), whom she hasnt seen for twenty-one years. When he inquires what shes been up to, she goes into motormouth mode. You can almost hear the revving of her brain, and, better still, you can watch Paul watching her. The art of listening is the most delicate of the dramatic arts, ignored at ones peril; Alec Guinness, rehearsing Henry V onstage, in his youth, was once chided by the older actor who played the King. You just stand there looking at me. Dont just look. Listen. Listen, he said. Guinness never forgot that reprimand, and I thought of him during Whered You Go, Bernadette?, as Fishburne, one of the finest listeners in the business, registers every syllable that flows from Blanchetts lips. At the end, he waits a beat, and asks, You done?

The solution to her misery, according to Paul, is clear. The reclusive architect should get off her hermit ass and build. People like you must create, he says. I have my doubts about such adviceare creative beings truly a race apart, with special privileges?but, for narrative purposes, it makes solid sense. Elgie, meanwhile, hatches a more drastic plan for his wife, arranging a psychological intervention, with the aid of a sympathetic shrink (Judy Greer). Wed like to present to you the reality of your situation, they announce to Bernadette. Not only, it turns out, has she been hoarding her prescription meds in a jar, like jelly beans, but, to add to the bedlam, she may also be the victim of identity theft.

For Bernadette, of course, and for us, in the audience, the joke is not that her identitys been stolen but that she has way too much of it. Just as the unstable hillside of her property slides down one day and floods the house next door with mud, so her self overflows the bounds of her regular life. That is why Blanchetts performance, like that of Katharine Hepburn, in Bringing Up Baby (1938), treads so joyfully close to excessnever quite over the top, yet savoring the pleasures of the brink. What these actresses offer is a kind of ecstatic warning: as your taste for experience grows avid and unconstrained, and as your laughter peals like a bell, people will fall in love with you, then fear you, and eventually find you mad.

Time and again, during Gene Stupnitskys Good Boys, I asked myself what Richard Linklater would have done with it. Being the guy who gave us School of Rock (2003) and Boyhood (2014), Linklater is wise to the apprehensions that seize the young, as they approach one threshold after another, and the three protagonists of Good Boys are faced with the most daunting threshold of all: a kissing party. Spin the bottle, and get ready to mash faces with the kid to whom it points. What happens, though, if you dont know how to kiss? Wont that be hell?

Max (Jacob Tremblay), Lucas (KeithL. Williams), and Thor (Brady Noon) are twelve years old, and inseparablethat is to say, unable to imagine when or why their friendship could ever end. They recently started sixth grade, with its solemn rites of passage; the matter of how many sips of beer a boy can take, for example, is treated as reverently as an Arthurian quest. Its the looming smooch, however, that baffles Max, and so, seeking inspiration (and maybe a demonstration), he borrows his dads drone and flies it over the house next door. My neighbors a total nymphomaniac, he explains. Lucas is perplexed. She starts fires? he says.

We get a handful of these malapropisms, the most touching of which is Thors plaintive cry: Two weeks into sixth grade, and Im already a social piranha. But the team behind the movie, with Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg among the producers, is pretty much the gang responsible for Superbad (2007) and Sausage Party (2016), and, by my calculation, their combined sense of humor is twice as juvenile as that of Max and his pals. How funny is it, say, to have the lads lark around with sex toys, under the impression that theyre merely normal toys? Is there not something suspect in the adult urge to get ones kicks from innocence? On the other hand, Good Boys is worth catching for those rare and wrenching points at which emotional honesty breaks through. Any viewer who is the product of a ruptured marriage will grimace in the dark as Lucas, whose favorite things include rules, anti-drug programs, and grilled cheese, quietly informs the others that his parents are getting a divorce. Back comes the instant reply: Whatd you do?f

« Go back