Movie Review ~ Where’d You Go, Bernadette


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A loving mom becomes compelled to reconnect with her creative passions after years of sacrificing herself for her family. Her leap of faith takes her on an epic adventure that jump-starts her life and leads to her triumphant rediscovery.

Stars: Cate Blanchett, Kristen Wiig, Billy Crudup, Judy Greer, Emma Nelson, Laurence Fishburne

Director: Richard Linklater

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 103 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  I want to take this very public forum to officially chastise myself for not finishing Maria Semple’s popular bestseller Where’d You Go, Bernadette before the movie opened.  Though the release date for the film was delayed twice, I just never got around to completing what I heard was a fun read.  I literally carried the book around in my bag for months and it still was passed over in favor of other fiction I had on my list to get to.  Blame summer going too fast, blame a busy schedule, but definitely blame me for not getting my butt in gear.

I’m wondering if I had finished the book what I would think of the film version that’s finally seeing the light of day after the aforementioned release date shifts.  Some in Hollywood viewed this as a sign the movie was in trouble but others looked at its Oscar-nominated director, its Oscar-winning star, and the adaptation of the still popular novel as a slam dunk for a late summer sleeper hit, like Crazy Rich Asians was in about the same spot last year.  While I can’t say for sure if fans of the novel will be pleased, I can say that while the film isn’t an outright misfire and has a few spirited moments, it’s suffering from a curious lack of purpose, a feeling echoed by the titular character.

From the half of the book that I did read, the film seems to hew closely to Semple’s examination of Bernadette Fox (Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine) a middle-aged mother living with her successful husband Elgin (Billy Crudup, Jackie) and teenage daughter Bee (Emma Nelson) in a dilapidated reform school on the outskirts of Seattle.  Unlike most mothers that have children at Bee’s prestigious school, Bernadette doesn’t have time for the PTA or social activities but instead prefers to stay in her home away from the outside world.  Her daughter is her best friend and her husband is her ally but not her confidant. Her only real connection is through Manjula, her assistant in India that is delegated much of the household planning.

When Bee reminds her parents they promised her she could have anything she wanted if she maintained her grades at school, she chooses a trip to Antarctica, which sets into motion a series of events that will change the Fox family forever.  Socially awkward Bernadette is terrified of the thought of leaving the comfort of home, bringing back memories of her life before Bee came along when she was a sought after architect whose brilliant designs made her a top name in the business.  Disappearing from her career after a highly publicized debacle, a meeting with a former colleague (Laurence Fishburne, Last Flag Flying) opens up the wounds from the past right around the same time the family is about to leave for their trip.  What happens next is a journey of self-discovery not only for Bernadette but for the entire Fox clan…and disappointingly it’s not exactly the amusing mystery you think it’s going to be.

I find it fascinating that director Richard Linklater was attracted to this project.  Though Linklater has shown up in different genres over the years, most recently with the genius Boyhood in 2014 to the all-out fun of Everybody Wants Some! in 2016, he feels like an odd fit for a movie about a woman experiencing a mid-life crisis.  The special charm the director has in eliciting the unexpected isn’t found here, even from the usually reliable Blanchett who can’t ever decide if she’s playing high drama or marginal camp.  It’s a quirky movie and I appreciated that it embraced some of its weirdness…but it didn’t go far enough in my book.  A key ingredient is just not there and it feels like the movie is held back because of it, never truly finding its footing, though it does feature several rather swell sequences.

At 103 minutes, I’m wondering if Semple’s comedic meditation on a woman feeling constrained and fleeing into the most unexpected of remote hiding places might have worked better with a little more heft to it.  Why not have it be a four or five episode mini-series on HBO or some streaming service that could have let Linklater and Blanchett breathe a bit more?  It doesn’t feel like a project that needed to be a feature film in any way.  There are enough supporting characters like Kristin Wiig’s (The Skeleton Twins) tightly-wound mom that can’t stand Bernadette, the strange appearance of Judy Greer (Halloween) feels like much of her performance was left on the cutting room floor, or any number of the small cameos from Linklater’s friends would have provide plentiful material to justify extra time.  Instead of going deeper in with Bernadette and her family, we only skim the surface and that doesn’t make for a satisfying meal.  What is there feels curtailed and constrained…Bee and Bernadette are supposedly close yet there are some major life events from Bernadette’s life Bee doesn’t know about?

Where the film does have strong points in calling out the struggles people feel at certain points in their life when they know they have so much going for them but can’t overcome some obstacle, be it real or imaginary.  They have the kindling and matches but can’t make the fire.  Bernadette knows she has a creative mind that is wasting away in her rundown manse but fear of repeating her past mistakes is keeping her locked away in the prison she’s made for herself.  There’s some good reflection of that very real feeling on display and for that, I give the movie much credit.  If only that clear message wasn’t surrounded by so many hazy tangents.

Movie Review ~ Blinded by the Light

2


The Facts
:

Synopsis: In 1987 during the austere days of Thatcher’s Britain, a teenager learns to live life, understand his family and find his own voice through the music of Bruce Springsteen.

Stars: Viveik Kalra, Kulvinder Ghir, Meera Ganatra, Nell Williams, Aaron Phagura, Hayley Atwell, Dean-Charles Chapman

Director: Gurinder Chadha

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 117 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review:  I suppose it’s nice to know that in this climate of constant disagreement, there is something we can find common ground on.  Though we may not be able to see eye to eye on politics or the environment it seems that we all can agree that Bruce Springsteen is, in fact, The Boss.  The New Jersey singer/songwriter that experienced his, ahem, glory days in the mid ‘70s through the late ‘80s and has enjoyed a steady career since has a way of unifying even the most contrarian among us.  A 2016 biography of his rough upbringing was a national bestseller and a subsequent solo show on Broadway was the hottest ticket in town.

Ever since Bohemian Rhapsody became an unlikely hit (like, totally unlikely given how bad it really is) there’s hope that even the smallest bit of rock and roll nostalgia will equate to big box office.  May’s Rocketman, a musical biography of Elton John, was an absolute delight and danced circles around Bohemian Rhapsody but it didn’t have the same staying power and though Yesterday marketed itself as a light-hearted romantic fantasy set to a Beatles score, in actuality it was a total misfire that was sent back to Abbey Road without any fanfare. I haven’t checked lately, but I’m sure other long gestating projects inspired by the songbooks of classic musicians gained some traction thanks to the Freddie Mercury/Queen film.

All that being said, it’s easy to see why Blinded by the Light is hoping to draw those Springsteen fans in based solely on name recognition alone.  Yet, like Yesterday, filmgoers are getting the old switcheroo and are in for a movie that feels different than what was advertised.  Far from the breezy and fun promise put forth in the trailer, this film that was inspired by a true story goes in hard on tired tropes and an astounding amount of cliché.  I arrived at the screening knowing nothing about the movie so had no preconceived notions of what to expect and was still left feeling let down.

It’s 1987 and Javed (Viveik Kalra) is coming of age in a small town in England.  This is during the time of Margaret Thatcher when the economic situation for the middle class was turning dire and the racial tension against non-British was heating up.  Living with his traditional Pakistani parents who work tirelessly to make ends meet, Javed hides a secret wish to become a writer.  Composing poetry in the privacy of his room and away from the watchful eye of his strict father (Kulvinder Ghir), Javed’s world is changed when a classmate gives him a Bruce Springsteen cassette.  By this point, Springsteen was already a worldwide sensation with numerous number one hits…and he’s also seen by the teens of the time as old news.  So when Javed starts to dress like Bruce and quote his lyrics like scripture, it doesn’t get him a free pass to sit at the cool kids table.

Director Gurinder Chadha (Bend it Like Beckham) can’t seem to find an element of the movie to hone directly in on so everything plays a bit like an episodic chapter book.  Secondary characters like Hayley Atwell (Avengers: Endgame) waltz in and out of the action at will and it creates a disjointed feel that interrupts any rhythm the director is going for.  That’s partly on Chadha the director but mostly on Chadha the screenwriter and her co-writers Paul Mayeda Berges and Sarfraz Manzoor.  There isn’t a stereotypical stone unturned in Javed’s rebellion against his father and no development that isn’t telegraphed well in advance.  While this isn’t a spoiler review site, if I told you the climax of the movie hinges on a Big Speech Javed gives that suddenly, somehow, opens the eyes, ears, and hearts of those that previously didn’t understand him…would you be at all surprised?

That’s all fine because, you know what, there’s space for these kind of formulaic films as well but it’s all in the execution and Kalra simply isn’t a compelling enough lead for us to care if he gets to go to Springsteen concert or not.  It’s strange, as an audience member I never seemed to be on his side when the movie truly wanted us to be.  The lucky thing for Kalra is that Chada has cast the engaging Ghir as his withering father and the memorable Meera Ganatra as his strong-willed mother.  Ganatra’s quiet pain when her husband loses his job and she has to sell off her wedding ring to help pay the bills is heartbreaking…I kept wanting to know what kind of music SHE was listening to.

The oddest thing about Chadha’s film is that it so desperately wants to be a musical that it almost can’t help itself.  One musical interlude with Javed, his friend, and a punk girl he develops feelings for, is modestly entertaining but clumsily performed.  I kept feeling like if Chadha had gone all the way with incorporating more of Springsteen’s music into the movie as fantasy sequences or with more creativity (and not just having his animated lyrics flying around the screen) the film would have garnered more interest.  At nearly two hours, it was frankly a bit of a bore to sit through.

A biographical film of Bruce Springsteen will most certainly get made but who knows when that will be.  Until then, it’s unfortunate that Blinded by the Light is the only movie out there representing The Boss’s work because it lacks the same forthrightness that have made his songs enduring classics.  While it’s endearing to see how the blue collar musician’s music stretched over the pond and had an impact on the life of another and empowered him to aspire higher, the workmanlike delivery by the filmmakers keeps it frustratingly grounded.