Adapted from the Maria Semple novel of the same name, Richard Linklater’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette? was once eyed as an awards contender. The director’s prestige (Boyhood, the Before trilogy), a star-studded ensemble led by Cate Blanchett, and the beloved source material would seem to ensure that, but when the release date was pushed back from early 2018, then again and again until well over a year later to this weekend – well, pundits grew justifiably suspicious. The result? It’s not as preposterously terrible as some semi-recent fool’s gold fare (see Life Itself), thanks above all to a lovingly maniacal performance by Cate Blanchett (think her character in Blue Jasmine, but even more of a hot mess). Though it is bizarrely chirpy for a movie about a mentally ill woman, and off-puttingly corny/formulaic at all the wrong moments. It’s certainly one of Richard Linklater’s biggest misfires, even if he has set a high bar for himself.
Those unfamiliar with the novel might feel a little lost in the first hour, as Linklater is slow to get to the point of who and why Bernadette Fox (Blanchett) is the way she is. For one, she’s a huge misanthrope. Aside from her daughter Bee (newcomer Emma Nelson), she despises practically everyone, particularly her finicky next-door neighbor played by Kristen Wiig. Her husband, Elgin (Billy Crudup), is a software engineer for Microsoft, and while he’s off working long hours developing what seems like mind-reading technology, Bernadette spends her days like an updated, wildly more charismatic version of Betty Draper from Mad Men: condemned to her headspace with little to do.
Turns out Bernadette’s quirks – mixing medications in a glass jar for aesthetic appeal, erecting massive signs in her yard warning neighbors (“gnats”) to keep out – are much graver than the film’s endearing, feel-good tone would suggest, making the experience of watching Where’d You Go, Bernadette? at once disturbing and disorienting. Once an incredibly gifted architect who received MacArthur Genius Grant, a failed project decades ago had the newly married Bernadette flee L.A. to Seattle, where she grappled with multiple miscarriages, then settled into motherhood. Her madness – which, to put it vaguely, ushers in a scandal involving Russian hackers and the FBI – hits a breaking point that sees Bernadette escaping an intervention and heading to Antarctica. This is what happens when artistic genius is stifled, the story suggests, the genius becomes “a menace to society.”
Tentatively framing the story from the perspective of her doting daughter using cringey narration doesn’t help, not least of all because Nelson plays the “perfect daughter” stock character with an earnestness that makes her seem like she comes from a different planet than Blanchett. Crudup, meanwhile, is perfectly well-cast as the weary, but well-meaning Elgin, so it’s too bad Linklater occasionally makes him sound like an idiot with awkwardly timed epiphanies.
Cate Blanchett, I’m happy to say, delivers the goods as the snippy, neurotic Anna Wintour-lookalike, Bernadette. Similar to Meryl Streep (yes, I mean to suggest Blanchett is her generation’s Streep), it’s easy to ignore the film’s failings if you focus on the central performance, which in Bernadette’s case brings out the story’s much darker (and more interesting) underpinnings. Though, compared to the novel, which is characterized by its absence of Bernadette, there’s hardly a scene in the film without her. So while the impulse to give Blanchett more screen time is understandable, perhaps Linklater’s decision to radically upend the original story is where the root of the problem begins. By fleshing out Bernadette as this quirky mad-genius, a Lucille Ball figure followed by a troubled woman second, Linklater bizarrely opts for feel-good comedy in the wrong place.