Where’d You Go, Bernadette? isn’t the worst film of the year, but it’s one of the most frustrating
Richard Linklater’s new dramedy, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?” is about a suburban housewife in the Pacific Northwest who has a nervous breakdown and then intentionally checks out of her everyday life – without warning or notice to anyone – to rediscover who she is as a person. If this sounds familiar to you, it might be because it’s based on the best-selling 2012 novel of the same name by Maria Semple. Or it could be because this movie was actually filmed over two years ago, but Annapurna Pictures and United Artists have continually pushed back the release date, ultimately dumping it into the dead zone that is late August. And now that audiences are finally getting a chance to see the mysteriously postponed feature, I can say that while it’s not one of the worst films I’ve seen this year, it is one of the more frustrating.
The plot goes something like this: Bernadette Fox (Cate Blanchett) had been at one point in the late 1990s the most successful female architect in the United States. Two decades later, her life consists of completing random, creative tasks around her massive, barely maintainable home and property while neglecting her depression medication and therapy. She hates the city she lives in – Seattle – and doesn’t get along with the other local moms in the neighborhood. Bernadette is one cat away from turning into a modern day Edith Bouvier-Beale, while her husband Elgin (Billy Crudup) runs a start-up company for Microsoft, and her 14-year-old daughter Bee (Emma Nelson) prepares to leave for a boarding school. Life is the epitome of mundane until Bernadette finally snaps after a heated argument with PTA head Audrey (Kristin Wiig).
Laurence Fishburne, Troian Bellisario, and Judy Greer co-star. “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?” has a lot going on that might have, oddly enough, been a little too much for Linklater. His style and cinematic talent work best with modest indie character studies like “Dazed and Confused” (1993), “Before Sunrise” (1995), “Waking Life” (2001), “Bernie,” (2011) and even the epically shot “Boyhood” (2012).
Even Linklater’s more mainstream films, like “School of Rock” (2003) and “Everybody Wants Some!” (2016), still offer the genuine feel-good quality this filmmaker has become known for. The problem here is that “Bernadette” didn’t make me feel good. When characters have extreme mental health issues like Blanchett’s character does, there is a fine line to walk. They can come across as either accessible and real or insufferable, and you need a storyteller who knows how this type of personality and mental history operates. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the impression that anyone involved with the film or its script understood the divide. Blanchett does all right with the character she’s given, but she has basically played a better version of this role before in 2013’s “Blue Jasmine.”
Even worse, though, is that insufferable Bernadette isn’t the most unlikable character in the movie. That award goes to Nelson’s Bee, who is unfortunately the most recent addition to the obnoxious, precocious, know-it-all kid canon. That’s not a dig at Nelson, who is just a teenager actress doing her job, but more a question for the authors of her character’s development. She is that annoying blend of always being right while still complaining, and no one in the film calls her out on it.
For me, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?” felt like watching a less disastrous repeat of Cameron Crowe’s “Aloha” (2015), but hopefully this won’t cause Linklater’s future career trajectory to spiral downward in the way that Crowe’s, John Hughes’, Richard Curtis’, or any other Capra-esque, happy-go-lucky filmmakers have, after making similar mistakes.