Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed
Where’d You Go, Bernadette (Richard Linklater, 2019) 1½ out of 4 stars.
I am such a diehard fan of actress Cate Blanchett (Carol) that I would watch her in just about anything, including a film about paint drying. I also generally like the movies of Richard Linklater (Boyhood), whose laid-back mise-en-scène affords actors plenty of room to showcase their talents. The new film Where’d You Go, Bernadette – an adaptation of Maria Semple’s eponymous 2012 novel (with which I was heretofore unfamiliar) – seemed like a great opportunity to see what a Blanchett-Linklater pairing might look like, since it was their first collaboration. The verdict? Well, I can’t speak for how fans of the source text might feel, since I am unaware of which elements come from the book and which from the screenplay, but for this reviewer, the experience was less than extraordinary. There are certainly worse movies out there – and, again, I am happy to see Blanchett no matter the framing device – but if one is hoping for something greater than pablum, this is not it.
Blanchett plays the titular Bernadette, a former rising star of an architect who, following a project debacle twenty years prior, moved from Los Angeles to Seattle with her software wizard of a husband and has been in an increasingly depressed funk ever since. A series of miscarriages and an eventual sickly-born daughter have not helped, though said child, Bee, is now a fairly vibrant 14-year-old and Bernadette’s best (if not only) friend. She’s also the narrator and, as incarnated by newcomer Emma Nelson, is one of the better parts of the story (even if her voice, as do that of all narrators in this kind of sloppy cinematic hodgepodge, comes and goes at random). As Elgie, the absent-minded, workaholic husband, Billy Crudup (20th Century Women) delivers some adequate performance moments of his own, but his part is so underwritten that there’s not a whole lot he can do.
We follow Bernadette as her situation goes from bad to worse, her antisocial tendencies landing her in hot water with nosy neighbor Audrey (Kristen Wiig, Downsizing). Before long, and a number of bad Bernadette decisions later, Elgie decides to stage an intervention, but does so in the least sensitive, most devastating way, just before the family threesome was slated to take a vacation to Antarctica (Bee’s choice, a reward for successful grades and attendance). What is Bernadette to do, and to whom can she turn for help, given how much her isolating has alienated all potential allies? More importantly, can the movie rescue her without engaging in a series of implausibilities?
Sadly, the answer to that last query is no. Though the film is not without its occasional pleasures, the structure of the narrative and the set-up of the premise are both so slapdash that one spends a lot of time scoffing at the unlikelihood of it all. Whether it’s Elgie’s inclusion of completely inappropriate people in his confrontation with Bernadette, the gross reduction of complex psychological problems into simplistic diagnoses or the facile solutions of the final act, Where’d You Go, Bernadette raises the broader question, “Where’d you go, Richard Linklater?” Not here, apparently, as none of his usual wit and charm are on display. Even Blanchett tried my patience, forced to utter vacuous dialogue masquerading as deep feelings. Better to let her sit with the paint. I’m still up for that.