Film Critic

Chuck Koplinski is The News-Gazette's film critic. His email is chuckkoplinski@gmail.com and you can follow him on Twitter (@ckoplinski).

SR Whered You Go Bernadette

The title character (Cate Blanchett) is shown with her daughter, Bee (Emma Nelson), in 'Where'd You Go, Bernadette' (2019).

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It’s rare that I have the reaction to a movie that I had to Richard Linklater’s “Where’d You Go, Bernadette.” Adapted from the novel by Maria Semple, this story of a woman who puts her career to the side in order to raise her daughter, only to find herself adrift and unstable years later as a result, gets off to an intriguing and entertaining start.

However, like a tape recorder from Ethan Hunt’s Impossible Missions Force, as the film progressed, it self-destructed before my very eyes. What was initially witty and insightful becomes silly and trite, while the film’s mixed message proved far too much to stomach and a bit insulting.

Having taken the architectural world by storm as a young woman, Bernadette Fox (Cate Blanchett) drops off the map to raise her young daughter, Bee (Emma Nelson). Truth be told, she suffered a professional setback and was looking for time out of the limelight. Over the course of 15 years, she’s become a self-absorbed terror, acerbic toward everyone who crosses her path, and her characteristics are starting to rub off on her daughter.

Concerned by this and other erratic behavior, her husband, Elgie (Billy Crudup), attempts to intervene and get her help, with the result of her fleeing to Antarctica on what was supposed to be a family trip. Soon after, Elgie and Bee are on her trail.

One of the film’s major problems is that its main character is unappealing and not the sort of woman you’d want to spend 10 minutes with, let alone two hours. While I have no problem sitting through a character study of a flawed person in an effort to discover what makes them tick, the tone and approach of the film is all wrong. Linklater sets out to create a witty comedy around this woman’s psychosis and it just doesn’t mesh.

Bernadette does a great deal of damage to her family, her neighbors and other fools she doesn’t suffer, and it’s supposed to play as humorously eccentric and a bit empowering. Instead, what results is an uncomfortable exercise in which we witness a selfish, sick woman running roughshod over everyone.

Even more troubling is the mixed message the film contains regarding work and family. Elgie works hard and puts in long hours at the tech firm he founded. He provides an exceptional life for his wife and daughter and allows Bernadette the freedom to raise their child and hide from the world. However, he’s been made to feel as though he’s been a bad father and husband for devoting so much time to his work. Though I didn’t feel as though this was firmly established in the movie, I’m willing to accept it.

However, by the end of the film, Bernadette is prepared to take on a project that will last at least two years in Antarctica, during Bee’s crucial teenage years — and everyone is fine with this! Linklater and Semple don’t condemn her actions as they do her husband’s, and instead we are expected to rejoice that she’s finally found her way once more, at the expense of her family. This double standard simply doesn’t fly and comes off as disingenuous and far too convenient.

In a madcap comedy, I wouldn’t object to the ridiculous pursuit father and daughter undertake to go to Antarctica to find Bernadette or the titular character’s boorish behavior if it were played for laughs. Unfortunately, that’s not the case with this film, a portrait of psychosis masquerading as a tale of rejuvenation and empowerment.

Also new in theaters

Too much Springsteen nearly dims ‘Blinded by the Light’ (★★★ out of four). As a fan Bruce Springsteen, I was really looking forward to Gurinder Chadha’s film, which is based on the life of writer Sarfraz Manzoor, who cites the musician’s work as a profound influence.

Based on the Boss’s songs, which play throughout, the movie follows one young man’s journey toward independence, inspired by tunes like “Born to Run,” “Badlands” and “Hungry Heart” to go out and make a life for himself. It works ... to a certain extent. While there’s no questioning the sincerity behind the project — done with Springsteen’s blessing — there’s a bit of overkill at play here where our hero’s plight is concerned and a lack of balance in the way the film’s themes are addressed.

The premise is nearly identical to Chadha’s international hit “Bend it Like Beckham,” except the driving force that inspires our hero is music instead of soccer. Javed (Viveik Kalra) is a young man who longs for something more than living in Luton on the outskirts of London. His Pakistani family expects him to respect and do all that his father, Malik (Kulvinder Ghir), tells him to do, even forking over his pay from his part-time job.

Eager for more, he attends a junior college in the hopes of getting good enough grades to go to a major university. He likes to write and has dabbled with poetry but doesn’t realize the power of words until his mate, Roops (Aaron Phagura), a fellow Pakistani, introduces him to Springsteen’s music.

Transformed by the power of the lyrics, as well as the way they speak of his own situation as a young man stuck and frustrated by forces he can’t control, he decides to take his writing more seriously and pursue it as a career. Thankfully, he has an encouraging teacher (Hayley Atwell) to help him along.

The pieces of the story mesh together effortlessly. The music is initially woven into the film via scenes in which Javed listens to it on his Walkman and proves particularly powerful during a moment in which our hero stands in the rain on a desperate night, listening intently as Springsteen’s lyrics are projected on the building behind him. It’s a potent melding of narrative and music that’s all the more convincing due to Kalra’s conviction.

However, as the movie progresses, far too many moments are spent shoehorning in as many songs as possible. While a scene in which Javed uses “Thunder Road” to express his devotion to his girlfriend, Eliza (Nell Williams), captures a frothy, 1950s musical vibe, an extended sequence that finds the couple and Roops prancing all around town shouting lyrics from “Born to Run” simply doesn’t work. Bystanders dance and sing along awkwardly, and the whole thing comes off as forced and unnecessary, bringing the movie to an absolute halt.

Ultimately, far too many songs are used, and the concept that they are a reflection of all the young writer thinks becomes tiresome and a bit of a bore.

In the end, we come to realize Springsteen’s song “Independence Day,” about a son saying goodbye to his father, who he feels he has nothing in the common with, is at the core of the movie. Having lost his factory job after 16 years, Malik is bitter over his situation and cannot understand his son’s desire to embrace a foreign culture and pursue a career he sees no merit in. Their moments of confrontation and a scene of their ultimate reconciliation prove poignant and powerful, capturing the essence of the songwriter’s work better than any other in the film. The father-son dynamic is what buoys “Light” and prevents it from completely fading away.

For DVR alerts, film recommendations and movie news, follow Koplinski on Twitter (@ckoplinski). He can be reached via email at chuckkoplinski@gmail.com.