Even with a terrific performance by Cate Blanchett to propel it through its rough patches, Where'd You Go, Bernadette never truly finds its footing.
Where'd You Go, Bernadette essentially has the same problem as the eponymous character: it has the potential for greatness, but seems confused about what it is or how to get where it wants to go. Director Richard Linklater's penchant for balancing exaggerated comedy with real sadness serves the film well, but the story's execution is clunky and often too messy for its own good. The movie has similarly mixed success with its efforts to adapt Maria Semple's acclaimed book and restructure it as the kind of acting-driven character study - one where plot is a secondary concern - Linklater's best known for. Even with a terrific performance by Cate Blanchett to propel it through its rough patches, Where'd You Go, Bernadette never truly finds its footing.
Blanchett stars here as Bernadette Fox, a once-famous L.A. architect who has since moved to Seattle with her husband Elgin (Billy Crudup), a tech genius who works for Microsoft. Now a devoted stay at home mother to her beloved daughter Bee (Emma Nelson), Bernadette doesn't like to leave their house or socialize with the other parents at Bee's school, especially their overbearing neighbor Audrey (Kristen Wiig). When Bee gets both her parents to reluctantly agree to take a trip to Antarctica, as a reward for her perfect grades in school, it sends Bernadette into a crisis that creates more conflict with those around her. However, after she takes off in an attempt to try and make things right, it's up to Bee and Elgin to figure out where she's gone (in more than one sense).
Whereas Semple's Where'd You Go, Bernadette is an epistolary novel composed of emails, transcripts, and so forth, Linklater and his cowriters Holly Gent and Vincent Palmo Jr. (Me and Orson Welles) adapt her source material into a screenplay that, for its first half, is full of rambling conversations and monologues where Bernadette dictates tasks to an assistant in India via voice-to-text. The approach makes sense enough for Linklater, whose scripts are frequently very talky, but results in loads of ungainly information dumps, many of which rob the more dramatic and heartbreaking reveals about Bernadette's past of their emotional impact. Even the film's efforts to make some exposition more cinematic, by having it delivered in a short YouTube documentary about Bernadette's architectural career, results in more long-winded interviews and voiceover. Because of this, something is lost in translation and what played out as an insightful comedy-drama on the printed page comes off as tedious and frequently unfocused in movie form.
Fortunately, Where'd You Go Bernadette is more capable when it comes to presenting Bernadette's house - a beautifully dilapidated and expansive piece of property being gradually overrun with wild blackberry bushes - as a visual metaphor for her life and what she's become without an outlet to channel her creative energies into. Linklater and his longtime DP Shane F. Kelly do an equally nice job of juxtaposing the soggy, cluttered grayness of Seattle with the sunny and unenclosed Antarctic settings (where Bernadette's spark for life is reignited) during the film's second half, especially as the proceedings start to become a little lighter on dialogue. There are some pacing issues, though, and the editing feels uneven when it comes to the movie's overarching structure. Where'd You Go, Bernadette's release date was delayed multiple times, but it's difficult to say if it went through some re-tooling in post-production or if these problems are simply a reflection of the film's larger issues adapting its source material.
Still, by far, the best thing about Where'd You Go, Bernadette is Blanchett. The Oscar-winner perfect encapsulates Bernadette's sheer passion, frustrations, snarkiness, and insecurities through her behavior and manner of speech, bringing her to life in a way the film can't manage to do with the story around her. Linklater, who is never lacking for ambition and has grown increasingly prolific over the years, clearly sympathizes with Bernadette for having put her artistic pursuits on hold (and not only to begin her family), and it shows in the movie's treatment of the character. The film also takes the time to develop the mother-daughter relationship between Bernadette and Bee, even as it fumbles the latter's arc (as she comes to realize just how little she really knows about her own mom). Wiig as Audrey eventually gets some welcome humanization too, but the movie otherwise wastes its talented supporting cast - which further includes Judy Greer and Laurence Fishburne - on characters that come off as either caricatures or glorified sounding boards for Bernadette.
There's a captivating story about what happens when creative people stop, well, creating and hide the truth about how they feel (from not only their loved ones, but even themselves) rattling around in Where'd You Go, Bernadette, but it just doesn't form a cohesive whole in the end. And as much as Blanchett elevates whatever's happening when she appears, it's not enough to prevent the movie from coming off feeling like an interesting misfire, but a misstep all the same. Still, those who are fans of Semple's novel and/or Linklater's films in general may want to check this one out at some point, if only to appreciate the elements that do work. If nothing else, it goes to show: even the most creative people aren't always on top of their game.
Where'd You Go, Bernadette is now playing in U.S. theaters. It is 109 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for some strong language and drug material.
- Where'd You Go, Bernadette (2019) release date: Aug 16, 2019