Culture

Casting Call: Maria Semple's Where'd You Go, Bernadette

Helena Bonham Carter/Photo © Featureflash/Shutterstock
Helena Bonham Carter/Photo © Featureflash/Shutterstock

Welcome to Signature's Casting Call, where we exercise our creative muscles by focusing our attention on extraordinary characters from exceptional books - either fiction or nonfiction - and make the case for how we'd cast those roles if given the chance. Note that, here at Signature, we're not casting directors, nor are we producers, agents, or anyone else who has any say in how a film will be cast; we're simply ardent fans of books and movies who can't help ourselves from such musings.

For all its sandals-and-socks reputation as a free-to-be-you-and-me laid-back bastion of healthy-living, do-gooding thirtysomething gazillionaires, the upper-class precincts of the Pacific Northwest possess a rigid set of social codes. And any misfit or miscreant who dares break them will receive the passive-aggressive equivalent of a New England-style stake-burning. This subculture of sanctimonious helicopter parents and self-regarding tech nerds has been so exalted for its forward-thinking high-minded intentions, these model citizens had every reason to smugly believe they were above reproach.

But that didn't stop former "Arrested Development" writer Maria Semple from skewering these sacred cows (humanely, of course) in her stunningly astute satirical novel, Where'd You Go, Bernadette. Beyond its ethnographic value as a snapshot of the underlying hypocrisies of the way the top five percent lives now, WYGB delivers at least one knowing chuckle per page in an innovative structure worthy of its own TED Talk.

The book, whose film rights were snatched up last August and whose adaptation will be produced by Megan Ellison and Nina Jacobson, unfolds as an epistolary paper trail tracking the events leading to the disappearance of the title character, an architect-turned-stay-at-home-mom who refuses to play by the rules set forth by PTA moms to whom she refers as gnats. Woven among the emails, faxes, and FBI documents are diary entries written by her daughter, Bee, a supersmart eighth grader who has asked for a trip to Antarctica as a reward for her good grades.

Bernadette is like an exotic animal who has been removed from her habitat and placed in an environment to which she's constitutionally unable to adapt. She was revered as a creative prodigy in LA's architecture scene until she was undone by a devious vengeful streak that's continued to wreak undue havoc on her career and family life. She's allowed her talents to molder ever since she arrived in cold, damp Seattle. And as her creative output has deteriorated, so has her ability to cope with daily life's mundane tasks, which she outsources to a personal assistant in India. It doesn't help matters that her oblivious tech genius husband, Elgin, is largely absent, sequestering himself among his acolytes at Microsoft HQ. When Bernadette finally lands on the icy Northern continent, her sense of displacement is cast in stark relief. "I got a huge knot in my stomach," she poignantly observes, "because if Antarctica could talk it would be saying one thing: You don't belong here."

Above all, the role of Bernadette requires a misfit whose underlying warmth and humor makes you suspect that she may be more well-adjusted than the seemingly sane conformists standing in judgment of her erratic behavior. This is not a job for a quirky mistress of quirk and perk like Reese Witherspoon or Sandra Bullock. Bernadette demands a mordantly funny iconoclast, which narrows the field down to two age-appropriate comediennes: Helena Bonham Carter and Kristen Wiig. And while Wiig certainly looks the part and possesses comic chops to spare, she lacks the flinty, slightly dangerous intelligence of Semple's wayward heroine. So our vote for this role goes to Bonham Carter, who has rarely had the opportunity to tamp down her anarchic comic spirit to play an American housewife who actually might be more at home in a Tim Burton movie.

There is no shortage of talented young ingénues capable of unleashing their inner wise child on the role of Bee. If age hadn't ruled out Ellen Page, she'd be our top choice. But we'd be perfectly happy seeing her heir apparent, Chloe Grace Moretz, step into Bee's Converse to serve as her mother's stalwart supporter and the film's wry narrator. Hailee Steinfeld or Abigail Breslin might also fit the bill quite nicely.

That leaves the book's one true cipher: paterfamilias Elgin Branch. We imagine the type of tall and lanky reformed nerd who is barely capable of removing his head from the clouds long enough to tie his shoes (hence Elgin's habit of padding around the office in socks). Bryan Cranston could certainly pull it off. But somehow it's hard to imagine him credibly marrying a character played by Bonham Carter. Robert Downey Jr. could nail a mad genius role in his sleep. But it all feels too familiar. That's why we'd most love to see what John Cusack or Hugh Laurie might do with the role. They're both vertically and intellectually endowed with comedic gifts that have gone overlooked in recent years.

That's where we've located our Bernadette and family, but feel free to offer alternate directions the filmmakers might go in their search to fill these roles.