There are moments in this adaptation of Maria Semple’s much-loved, quite successful novel Where’d You Go, Bernadette that I absolutely loathed, and part of the reason I felt this way is that something about this story almost completely corrupted one of my all-time favorite filmmakers, Richard Linklater. I’m not saying Linklater (Boyhood, the Before trilogy) hasn’t made a dud or two in his career, but Bernadette is at times aggressively terrible, asking us to forgive shitty, selfish behavior just because someone is deemed an artistic genius by the world around her. I’m fairly certain that one of the lessons of the past couple of years is that that kind of excuse-making can no longer be the norm or tolerated, and that just because someone is labeled a great director, actor, musician, painter, writer, whatever, that treating others around them horribly or in a way that could seriously damage them is no longer excusable.
But apparently retired architect Bernadette Fox (Cate Blanchett) never got that memo.
If Bernadette were simply a space cadet, the film probably wouldn’t be so problematic. Through the use of a YouTube documentary about her that Bernadette samples throughout the movie, we learn about her early triumphs as a designer of buildings, and that she was one of the first to consider the source of the building material as well as the practicality and functionality of the structure itself. She married Elgie (Billy Crudup), a Mircosoft wizard known for ingenious ideas and young, attractive, female assistants (during the course of this film, he’s working with one played by Zoe Chao).
Bernadette rarely leaves the house, leaving much of her day-to-day needs be handled by a virtual assistant named Manjula, who happens to live in India but seems to be doing a great job of placing orders for Bernadette in a timely fashion and having complete and total access to her bank account and credit cards. (Gee, I wonder if that’s going to come back to bite her on the ass.) The few times she does leave her house, it’s usually to help out her teen daughter Bee (newcomer Emma Nelson). The two seem to have the closest, most loving bond in the film, but that still doesn’t keep Bernadette from making one bad decision after another that really threaten to mess up Bee’s world. Chief among said decisions is going to war over landscaping with neighbor Audrey (Kristen Wiig), who is a bit of a busy-body—in the course of their battling, some real damage happens.
Also on hand at various points to add fuel to the Bernadette fire of selfishness is Laurence Fishburne as an old colleague of hers who reconnects just to figure out if he can convince her to re-enter the architecture game, one she left after her crowning-achievement home design met with a devastating end. I get that sometimes the world around us can drive us insane, but Bernadette isn’t crazy; she is just so used to having every thought that pops in her head become a reality that she rebels when that stops being the case. Her husband thinks an intervention is necessary and hires a therapist (the great Judy Greer) to organize and guide it; naturally, it’s a damn disaster.
The movie’s final act (and from where the film—adapted by Linklater, Holly Gent and Vincent Palmo Jr.—gets its title) after the botched intervention sees Bernadette seek shelter in the unlikeliest of places and eventually makes good on the family’s plan to take a vacation in Antarctica. With her family in hot pursuit, the title is even more confusing, since she’s never really missing for more than a few hours, and the audience always knows exactly where she is—thus, no mystery.
Bernadette begins to behave like a thoughtful, kind human being once again as she makes her way through that frozen south, and being there gives her an idea of where her life needs to go—in a much more productive, useful direction than it was headed. There’s such a startlingly great cast in Where’d You Go, Bernadette that it’s difficult to believe just how unpleasant an experience it can be watching it at times. I’m still not exactly sure if Blanchett is any good here; I don’t need to like a lead character to enjoy the hell out of a movie, but there’s almost nothing about Bernadette I could hold onto as an emotional anchor to carry me through the chaos in her head. Everyone basically shrugs and says “Oh, that Bernadette!” when she does something awful, and then they start remember just how innovative she once was.
The ideas informing the film seem petty and ugly, and I could never quite get a grip on why I was expected to care or empathize with any of these narcissists. There are flashes in Bernadette where I could see what Linklater was aiming for, but he simply never gets there, and a huge part of the problem is Blanchett’s actor-y performance. She’s playing a character, not a person, and her quirks don’t tell us much about Bernadette as much as they give the actress something kookie to do. Here and there, there are things I became fond of; Nelson’s take on the daughter just made me sad about how she must have grown up, but it’s a solid performance, and ultimately Kristen Wiig’s character gets a few nice moments. But as a whole, Where’d You Go, Bernadette is a colossal disappointment from just about everyone involved.
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