Maria Semple’s best-selling 2012 novel “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” has been championed for its hilarious take on Seattle as well as its painstakingly accurate portrayal of Microsoft and the tech giant’s culture.
The book chronicles the life and struggles of Bernadette Fox, a one-time celebrated architect with a deep disdain for her adopted city of Seattle. She’s married to Elgin Branch, a Microsoft genius whose character was inspired by Blaise Agüera y Arcas, the software engineer who is now at Google.
With the arrival of the film version of “Bernadette,” which opened in theaters this week, GeekWire set out to truth squad director Richard Linklater’s version of Semple’s work. While much of the movie was shot elsewhere, did they manage to get Seattle right? How much of the city’s rapidly evolving tech culture is on display?
Here are some of the highlights. Watch out for mild spoilers.
- Rain: It’s Seattle, and so it must do nothing but rain. That tried and true weather cliche about the city is one of the biggest stars of “Bernadette.” But it comes across looking like a 100-year-storm happens every two days. One character even uses an umbrella! As if.
- Amazon: Bernadette (Cate Blanchett) orders a lot of stuff online, and it all comes via Amazon. Early in the movie she’s seen knifing open a Prime box. Then another. And then she’s in a room full of cardboard. Typical shopper, if not typical Seattleite.
- Microsoft: During a visit to her husband’s workplace with her daughter, Bee, Bernadette says, “Feel the Microsoft motivation. It’s Seattle, all roads lead to Microsoft.” We don’t get any exterior views of the company’s Redmond, Wash., campus. The interior stuff was all shot in Pittsburgh, at Carnegie Mellon’s School of Computer Science.
- New tech: Elgin (Billy Crudup) is working on some artificial intelligence gadget called Samantha 2, which reads his mind and types out what he’s thinking. As a Microsoft hot shot, he’s shown a bit on his laptop, or whiteboarding with colleagues. He also uses a fancy Surface Studio desktop computer in his office. He’s portrayed by his family as never not working. So, accurate!
- Seattle architecture: Bernadette is shown inside and outside Seattle’s Central Library, the celebrated building by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. “Mom might hate Seattle,” Bee says, “but she loves the downtown library.”
- Apple products: Elgin might work for Microsoft, but his wife and daughter prefer the competition’s hardware. Bernadette and Bee (Emma Nelson) are both seen using an Apple laptop and Bernadette is often on her iPhone and iPad.
- Transportation: Elgin and colleagues need to make it from Redmond to a meeting at an unspecified location and they decide to take “the shuttle.” A small bus resembling the company’s Connector is then shown on 5th Avenue in downtown Seattle. The Monorail speeds past overhead. Bernadette also bitches at one point about Seattle’s ridiculous street grid, streets that end for no reason, and seven-way stops at intersections.
- Glass art: Bernadette visits a pharmacy to fill a prescription and she remarks on a Chihuly chandelier hanging in the business. It’s an oddly placed nod to the famed Seattle glass artist Dale Chihuly.
- More rain: The weather is still crappy, and there’s a very wet and grey aerial view of the Magnolia Bridge before Bernadette and Bee take a drive on what could very well have been the old Alaskan Way Viaduct.
- Name dropping: At a school fundraiser brunch at Bernadette’s neighbor’s house, the neighbor Audrey (Kristen Wiig) says that the dad of one first grader “is in Pearl Jam.” Looking across the room she then says, “that’s Jeff Bezos’ brother in law” in a nod to the Amazon CEO. Other than the mess of Amazon delivery boxes, it’s the only other reference to a tech giant that has become a major part of life in Seattle since the book made Microsoft a focus seven years ago.
- Tech backlash: That cranky neighbor Audrey lashes out at Bernadette over damage to her home suffered during a mudslide from Bernadette’s property. “You come in here with your Microsoft money and buy this 9,000 square foot teardown …”
- Sorry, Bing: Microsoft’s search engine never gets a mention or any screentime, despite Elgin’s employer. Instead, Bernadette is shown using Google like the rest of the world, and someone later says to her, “I Googled you.”
- Space Needle: Seattle’s most famous landmark shows up in at least three scenes. The family has dinner in the rotating restaurant and the building’s top looks like it’s spinning at a pace that might make digestion a little iffy. Bernadette also has a moment at Kerry Park, the much-loved viewpoint overlooking the skyline from the Queen Anne neighborhood. But a view looking back at her is lush and green, removing all the condos and homes that sit along the real street.
- More tech backlash: Bernadette drops her phone in a vase full of water after it’s discovered that her virtual assistant out of India is actually a front for a Russian crime ring. “That was me ending my relationship with technology,” she says.
- Bye bye Microsoft: When Elgin’s Samantha 2 tech gets folded into gaming during a reorg, he calls it quits. “I turned in the old badge,” he says in reference to the ubiquitous techie identifier. “I’ve never not known you without your badge,” his daughter replies.
In the end, Seattle comes across in “Bernadette” as the grey and rainy place that most people probably think it is 365 days a year. People wear fleece and clogs and vests. They tap tap on laptops at their kitchen counter and they order everything from Amazon.
“None of what has become of me is Seattle’s fault,” Bernadette says at the end.