Richard Linklater, one of the most humanistic filmmakers working today, has often explored such themes as time, aging, or the benchmarks in ones lives, such as the last day of High School (Dazed And Confused), a first date (Before Sunrise), or the entire breadth of a child’s life (Boyhood). His films often feel unstructured, laid back and unforced. It’s strange then to see him play in the James L. Brooks/Cameron Crowe sandbox with his adaptation of Maria Semple’s epistolary novel, Where’d You Go, Bernadette, but that’s not automatically a bad thing. Co-written with Holly Gent and Vincent Palmo Jr., Linklater seems out of his element with this part-sitcom, part psycho-drama about a stifled genius. Still, he manages to deliver a moving experience helped immeasurably by Cate Blanchett’s fantastic title performance.
Bernadette lives in a dilapidated Seattle mansion with her Microsoft tech genius husband Elgie (Billy Crudup) and their adorable teenage daughter Bee (Emma Nelson). As a reward to Bee for a successful report card, they agree to take her on a family trip to Antarctica. Trouble is, over the years, Bernadette, a once famous architect, has transformed into a shut-in who hates people, especially taking it out on her next door neighbor, Audrey (Kristen Wiig). Deeply troubled, Bernadette spends most of her time barking orders at Manjula, her virtual assistant in India, who arranges for everything to come to her door in package after package. Getting her out of the house and to the most remote place on earth seems unlikely.
It takes quite a while for the themes to coalesce, with the first act focusing on her feud with Audrey. Wiig excels with her tightly wound Mean Girl character and works well with Blanchett. I wondered, however, what this had to do with Antarctica and why we were spending so much time on this wayward plot strand. The story, however, slowly reveals itself to be about what becomes of an artist who no longer creates. She acts out, makes bad decisions, and directs her anger at everyone.
For a while, you laugh along with Bernadette as she takes out some easy targets. It culminates in a great scene in which Bernadette and Bee gang up on Audrey to take her down a peg. A lesser film would have left it at that, leaving a bad taste in my mouth to see women hurting each other. It wisely chooses to move beyond that scene and give these three women more dimensions than presented at first. Crudup also impressed me with his long-suffering husband character. He could have easily played Elgie as an entitled husband who wants his wife to “behave”, but instead he offers a soulful person who loves his wife yet can’t figure out how to navigate her towards happiness. Emma Nelson also excels as the kind of incredibly cool daughter you’d want to hang with as friends, but who also clearly needs a more solid foundation in which to grow.
Unlike the somewhat goofy trailer, the film has a much more somber tone in keeping with its rainy, Pacific Northwest setting. Disappointingly, it’s Linklater’s least flashy directing job of his career. The closest film this resembles is Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty, another story about a character drowning in self-loathing. Whereas Stiller went for intense visual flourishes, Linklater merely delivers coverage. Still, I felt something here, despite a certain flatness and a ridiculous series of events involving such disparate things as penguins, FBI investigations, mudslides, kayaks, online scams, and potential office affairs. It’s a LOT to take in, but Blanchett anchors it with someone cold, nihilistic, yet relatable. It may all come off as champagne problems, (“Oh darn, should we go to Antarctica?” “Did I order too many vests from the catalogue?” “That flood ruined my expensive oak floors!”) but Blanchett makes you care just the same.
GAY SCALE: For each review, I’ll rate the film on my 50 SHADES OF GAY SCALE to let you know how far it tips in our favor. Where’d You Go Bernadette gets a 0 out of 50. You’d think they could have thrown in a gay penguin or two!
By Glenn Gaylord
Where’d You Go, Bernadette is currently in wide release in the US.