Poor Bernadette Fox. Played by Cate Blanchett, the heroine of Richard Linklater’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette is in an existential funk–or perhaps worse. A once acclaimed architect, she retreated from fame nearly two decades ago and fled from Los Angeles to Seattle, where she, her 15-year-old daughter Bee (Emma Nelson), and her high-level Microsoft engineer husband Elgie (Billy Crudup) live in a former school for girls that Bernadette is theoretically going to reclaim and refurbish.
That’s the idea anyway. But Bernadette hates her neighborhood and especially her next door neighbor, judgmental and nosy Audrey (Kristen Wiig). She’s also distraught about Bee wanting to go to boarding school and she feels trapped in her enforced domesticity. Worst of all, she is not creating anything anymore; she’s just stockpiling pills and approaching a planned family trip to Antarctica with agoraphobic dread…until her chaotic juggling act all comes crashing down one day and she abruptly disappears.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette is based on a 2012 novel by Maria Semple, and not having read the book, it’s hard for this viewer to gauge exactly what Linklater–whose sparking resume includes such masterworks as the Before trilogy and Boyhood, just to name two–is going for here. Ostensibly a comedy, the movie flirts with the serious idea that Bernadette is dealing with real, even crippling mental illness, and then pulls back, saying that an expensive trip to an exotic location is really all anyone needs to jumpstart their lives, even at the expense of leaving their family behind.
The confused messaging seems to have left the leading lady bewildered as well; Blanchett plays Bernadette as a slightly more farcical variation on her Oscar-winning and tragic performance in Blue Jasmine, and for once this always watchable actor seems not completely in control of the material she’s working with. Her best scenes are with Nelson, as mom and daughter form am affectionate and snarky united front against the world. Crudup and Wiig are fine, with the latter doing a lot with a stock character, but this is still Blanchett’s show. If only she had a better idea of what show she was in.
The movie could be about a lot of things: the way women must constantly fight for recognition and respect in a man’s world, how a ceaselessly creative mind can turn on itself if it’s not engaged, and how even the most loving family can feel sometimes like a prison. But Where’d You Go, Bernadette steps back from the brink of anything more profound and just turns into a travelogue, with Bernadette fleeing her family as they doggedly try to track her down. It’s only in a movie like this where such privileged folks can jet off without a second thought to the bottom of the world, and someone can offhandedly mention that they gave their notice at a tech giant without breaking a sweat.
Apparently the book was written in epistolary style, with Bee tracking her missing mom through emails, letters, police reports, and so forth. That might have added more mystery and quirk to the material in its published form, so perhaps adapting that sort of narrative into a more traditional, linear screenplay robbed it of whatever resonance made it work for the reader. While the usually on-point Linklater touches on weightier themes in the film version, Where’d You Go, Bernadette is ultimately too lightweight and trapped in a bubble of its own making to hit home the way it should.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette is out in theaters Friday, Aug. 16.
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