Where'd You Go, Bernadette
As per its title, Where’d You Go, Bernadette is better at asking questions than delivering answers. It’s a strange film, with A-list performers and a sensitive director producing a work that feels maudlin and messy, little more than some TV movie trifle.
Bernadette Fox (Cate Blanchett) is a curmudgeonly neighbor, derisive of everyone and everything in her Seattle neighborhood. A former star architect, she’s essentially cooped up in her massive home, a project in need of much work and a mirror for her emotional well-being. Her husband Elgin (Billy Crudup) is a TED-talking tech genius, and her bright-eyed daughter Bee (Emma Nelson) is Bernadette’s most prized creation. Bernadette has an irascible relationship with high-strung neighbor Audrey (Kristen Wiig), evidence of a longstanding trait of antisocial behavior that goes back decades to when she was forced to abandon a major project.
A slew of other ace actors – Judy Greer, James Urbaniak, Laurence Fishburne, Steve Zahn, and Zoë Chao to name a few – all navigate Bernadette’s broad swings of mood. The film has sidebars about identity theft and trips to Antarctica, mudslides and other mayhem, but none of it coalesces into a coherent narrative.
After the fact, I dug up a synopsis for the award-winning book the movie is based on, and it’s clear why that darker, more emotionally raw novel would have achieved its bestselling success. Translating it to the screen has neutered a great deal of the story, making things like the acceptance into boarding school, or the whimsy of multi-millionaires, feel both out of touch and distancing. It’s hard to sympathize with people who can pick up the phone to solve most of their problems but simply refuse to do so. The ability to jump on First Class flights to the other side of the planet at the last minute also makes worries about their banking problems feel trite.
This is the kind of meandering movie where you’re annoyed at little things that stand out. Elgin’s an employee of Microsoft, living in Seattle, yet the film has enough Cupertino tech to fill an Apple Store, right down to the pink Beats headphones. It’s a small flub, but it makes one question just why the story’s set in Seattle in the first place. Why does the movie have such a disconnected relationship to the setting, other than the need for somber and rain-soaked views?
Director Richard Linklater is rightly celebrated for his precise examinations of fully realized characters, but here it seems he’s over his head. Bernadette is too big for real life, cartoonishly so. Cate Blanchett’s Oscar-winning turn in Blue Jasmine was an even broader take on madness, but was directed with far more sympathy and elegance, and a razor sharp script to boot. The contrast is unfavorable, making this film feel as fake and awkward as the green-screen shots of Greenland subbing in for Antarctica.
The release date for Where’d You Go, Bernadette has been pushed back for well over a year, and it hasn’t aged in the barrel the way some may have wished. The film is almost astonishing in its pointlessness, a betrayal of some highly talented people who built a cinematic house with all the trimmings that collapses at the smallest touch.