Over a year ago I was at a very special event that featured a Q&A with none other than Richard Linklater. It was a great evening listening to a favorite filmmaker of mine talk about making movies. Close to the end of his session he hinted at his most recent project, a movie starring Oscar winner Cate Blanchett. That’s all he said, but it was enough to spark my interest.
It turns out the movie was “Where’d You Go, Bernadette”, an adaptation of the 2012 best-selling novel by Maria Semple. In it Blanchett plays disillusioned misanthrope Bernadette Fox. She pretty much hates everyone save her daughter Bee (newcomer Emma Nelson) and her husband Elgin (Billy Crudup). In fact her general negativity and social anxiety leads her one friend and mentor (Laurence Fishburn) to label her a “menace to society”.
Bernadette is a character perfectly tuned for Cate Blanchett. She’s smart, neurotic, and a ticking emotional time bomb. These are characteristics Blanchett can convey in her sleep. It’s a vibrant, even dominating performance that may be a little too big for some tastes. I found her to be captivating and an essential reason the movie works as a whole.
At first the trajectory of the story is a little confusing and there are early moments when it’s tough to figure out what kind of movie Linklater wants to make (he co-wrote the script with Holly Gent and Vincent Palmo Jr.). But I realized I had made the mistake of approaching the film as a straight comedy when it really isn’t. Don’t get me wrong, we certainly get dashes of humor scattered throughout. Some of it lands well, some of it not so much. But this was far more dramatic than I expected and once I had a grasp of that the movie began to speak a much more satisfying language.
Bernadette is an intriguing character from the start and a hard nut to crack (absolutely no pun intended). Her struggles stem from a wide range of personal issues. She was once a famous architect known for her aggressively modern vision and willingness to trust her creative instincts. But when she and Elgin moved to Seattle from LA, his career took off while her fire to create was all but extinguished.
But Bernadette’s descent into cynicism and melancholy isn’t one-dimensional. There are numerous influences and conflicts, both internal and external, that are revealed and play roles in her sometimes fragile state of mind. It all adds a welcomed complexity to the character and keeps Bernadette from becoming some by-the-books stereotype that we often see in movies exploring this same territory.
Bernadette’s many layers show most through her relationships. This includes her tepid marriage to Elgin, the devoted mother/daughter dynamic with Bee, the testy back-and-forths with her next door neighbor (Kristen Wiig), even her one-sided rants with her online secretary and virtual confidant. But when it all begins to overwhelm her, Bernadette sneaks off on a journey of rediscovery. I’m oversimplifying it for the sake of spoilers, but she vanishes leading Elgin and Bee to pop the question asked in the movie’s title.
“Where’d You Go, Bernadette” is a unique and quirky thing that won’t be for everyone. Then again Linklater movies never score big at the box office. And considering it goes up against a brand new animated film, a shameless publicity-hounding raunchy comedy, and a big-budget blockbuster holdover that trend should continue. But I liked a lot about “Bernadette” – Blanchett’s performance, Emma Nelson’s debut, the film’s big heart. I even liked its messiness. That may be a weird compliment, but this is a weird movie, and I guess I like that about it too.
VERDICT – 4 STARS