Where'd You Go, Bernadette may be the best anti-August film in recent memory. I have long theorized that August is Hollywood's wasteland. Simply put, don't expect any filmmakers behind an August release to be renting a tuxedo come Oscar time. With so many families enjoying the last gasp of summer before another school year begins, film distributors have been known to clean out their junk drawers in the weeks before Labor Day.
But then there's Where'd You Go, Bernadette, a sly, sensical contemplation of the human experience. Take as an example the opening moments of the film when we hear the voice of 16-year-old Bee (newcomer Emma Nelson) waxing poetic on humankind's fragility:
"Have you ever heard that the brain is a discounting mechanism? Let's say you get a present and open it and it's a fabulous diamond necklace. Initially, you're delirious with happiness, jumping up and down, you're so excited. The next day, the necklace still makes you happy, but less so. After a year, you see the necklace and you think, 'Oh, that old thing.' It's the same for negative emotions. Let's say you get a crack in your windshield and you're really upset: 'Oh no, my windshield, it's ruined. I can hardly see out of it. This is a tragedy.' But you don't have enough money to fix it, so you drive with it. In a month, someone asks you what happened to your windshield, and you say, 'What do mean?' Because your brain has discounted it.
"It's for survival. You need to be prepared for novel experiences because they often signal danger. If you live in a jungle full of fragrant flowers, you have to stop being so overwhelmed by the lovely smell because otherwise you couldn't smell a predator. That's why your brain is considered a discounting mechanism. It's literally a matter of survival."
What follows over the next 90 minutes is an intellectual merry-go-round that whizzes by a Seattle mudslide, an accidental overdose in a pharmacy and a full-tilt mental meltdown. Keep all of that in mind when you consider that Where'd You Go, Bernadette is being promoted as a comedy.
All that said, about two-thirds of the way into a film during which I admittedly wondered where this thing was going, I told myself, "I think I love this movie." Sure, it's as quirky as wearing tennis shoes with a Chanel gown, but it's swell and often adorable. And oh yes: There are some penguins along the way on Bernadette's unlikely journey to Antarctica (don't ask: no spoilers here).
The film is often untidy and occasionally off-the-rails (as is Bernadette), but I did ultimately surrender to its intellect and charisma. I can count the reasons why on one hand:
The source material: The 2012 runaway chart-topping novel of the same name, penned by Maria Semple, was dubbed "sparkling" by The New York Times, but many thought the book was "unfilmable," doubting its "free-ranging hilarity" could be captured by a camera lens. Trust me. It's "filmable."
Richard Linklatter: I have made no secret of my admiration for this Oscar-nominated writer/director (Boyhood, School of Rock, Dazed and Confused). Linklatter has lifted complex, beautiful characters from an epistolary, non-linear novel and integrated them into a well-balanced, three-act ensemble piece.
Cate Blanchett: In the hands of some actress other than the two-time Oscar winner, Bernadette could have devolved into a scenery-chewing mess. Blanchett is a magician.
Emma Nelson: This Chicago-native eighth-grade wunderkind brings an emotional intelligence into the eye of her parents' domestic hurricane. I'm guessing that Linklatter, who has had an unprecedented knack for directing young talent, had something to do with Nelson's amazing performance.
Billy Crudup as Bernadette's work-obsessed Microsoft guru husband might be the film's biggest surprise. Crudup takes the often-thankless role of the protagonist's spouse, which has time and again been marginalized in so many other films; but Crudup's delicate portrayal rounds off many of Bernadette's prickly edges. And in the shadow of such high-wattage performances from Blanchette, Nelson, and Kristen Wiig as Bernadette's off-the-chain Seattle neighbor, Crudup's performance is the story's much-needed anchor.
All in, Where'd You Go, Bernadette is occasionally confounding, but fiercely intelligent and utterly original.