Seattle in the Movies

Why Does Where'd You Go, Bernadette Hate Seattle?

The film version of Maria Semple's blockbuster novel misses the chance to truly skewer the city.

By Allison Williams December 28, 2021

If Bernadette was really a Seattleite, she would lose her giant sunglasses every three months.

I was so excited about the movie version of Where'd You Go, Bernadette that in 2015 I tried to cast the flick myself. Maria Semple's acerbic 2012 novel captured the Emerald City's self-importance, anxiety, and ambiguities like no piece of popular art since Singles, and it promised an utterly Seattle film that was not about vampire sex or S&M or Sasquatch or sleeplessness. A movie we could be proud of.

Or not.

The Basics

Bernadette lives in Seattle. Bernadette hates Seattle. Bernadette runs away to Antarctica. (Not a spoiler—the movie's script supplies very little mystery around where she goes, that Bernadette.) Besides an amusing subplot about blackberry bushes run amok, that's pretty much it. The movie flopped in 2019, bringing in a mere $10 million on a $20 million budget, despite starring Cate freaking Blanchett.

What Where'd You Go, Bernadette Gets Right about Seattle

Given that director Richard Linklater opted to film in Pittsburgh instead of Seattle, the movie honestly isn't as bad as it could have been. (Still...Pittsburgh?) The Space Needle gets its due—even its late interior rotating restaurant—and one rather superfluous scene lingers over Rem Koolhaas's Central Library. Nonworking architect Bernadette calls out the Dale Chihuly chandelier she sees in a drugstore (uh, more on that below), a mythical pharmacy downtown located next to a Cherry Street Coffee.

Bernadette's nemesis, played by Kristen Wiig, hosts a private school fundraiser in which the (mostly white) first graders warble a Kenyan pop song while Wiig smugly raves about the school's nonsensical mission of "global connectitude." All the upper-middle-class moms wear dowdy cardigans, of course. Fair or not to our local private school cabal, it feels like the most accurate diss.

Just your basic Seattle pharmacy with modest Chihuly decor.

What Where'd You Go, Bernadette Gets Wrong about Seattle

Hoo-boy. The double-takes start before the end of the opening credits, when the camera pans over the family's decrepit house, located atop a hill that resembles Queen Anne or Magnolia—if either had ten-acre lots that unfold around 9,000-square-foot homes. Later we get a glimpse of the plaque at Bernadette's front gate, noting that the building was once the Strait Gate School for Girls, "built in 1832," now a City of Seattle Historic Landmark. Apparently no one on set bothered to check that the Denny Party didn't land on Alki until nearly two decades later (1832 Seattle was home to the Duwamish, not wayward schoolgirls in Gothic mansions).

And there's that downtown drugstore with a Chihuly chandelier. May I repeat, a drugstore with a Chihuly (and, uh, a tufted settee upon which Bernadette takes a midday public nap). My local drugstore has flickering fluorescent tube lights and doesn't even stock paper birthday party hats or rapid Covid tests.

Even more unbelievably, the drugstore clerk is completely baffled when our leading lady compliments the Chihuly ("Chi-whooo?"), which has the effect of making Bernadette look like an eagle-eyed aesthete stuck in yokel central. Uh, no. Most Seattleites can spot a Chihuly at a hundred yards by the time they hit puberty (thanks, public school field trips); Bernadette just comes across as a snob.

Where'd You Go, Bernadette implies that while the brilliant architect clearly wrestles with a host of untreated mental illness (anxiety, depression, agoraphobia), Seattle's innate Seattle-ness is what truly quashed her creative genius. And besides that one quarrelsome neighbor, the movie's indictment of Seattle comes down to a single rant about one-way streets (do we really have that many more than a standard metropolis?) and seven-way intersections (...fair enough).

Though Microsoft offices and piles of Amazon mailers both appear, both mega-companies are treated with kid gloves. No evisceration of the Seattle Process, no cracks at gentrification, no real critique of the craftsman aesthetic. All we get is lots of torrential, monsoon-style rain. What is this, an atmospheric river?

Seattle haute couture, non?

Seattle Style Files

Bernadette: effortlessly stylish in a chic bob and minimalist clothing. Everyone else in Seattle: frumpy and garish. Listen, I'm not going to argue that a star architect from Los Angeles would put most of us to shame in the fashion department, but when mean mom Kristin Wiig shows up in a cartoon-printed turtleneck under a puffy vest, I had to call foul. Sure, we dressed that bad—in the '90s.

Is Where'd You Go, Bernadette a Seattle movie?

This is a tough one. On one hand, the film more explicitly addresses the city's personality than, say, Sleepless. But the lackluster screenplay sanded the source material's sharp corners; Semple, like Bernadette, was a Californian newcomer to the Northwest, and her book crackled with specificity. (The book roasts Daniel's Broiler and venerates climate-change skeptic Cliff Mass, both of which the movie skips.)

The movie represents a Seattle that feels distorted through a long game of telephone, a city created from a mood board that says merely "Space Needle," "Microsoft shuttle," and "yuppie private school." The bar is higher given the central importance of the setting, and Where'd You Go, Bernadette slumps far below it.

The Grade

Panning any Cate Blanchett vehicle feels like hubris of the highest order, and her selfish Bernadette wrings a few laughs from the ghastly characterization. The last third of the movie, set in Antarctica, is full-on gorgeous. (Though that part was shot in Greenland, the Pittsburgh of snowy locales.) Still, for all its crimes against Seattle's real neuroses—and that stupid "built in 1832" sign—we give Where'd You Go, Bernadette two of five incongruous Chihuly chandeliers.

Show Comments