Where’d You Go, Bernadette
by Hope Madden
Low-key visionary director Richard Linklater, inexhaustible talent Cate Blanchett and wildly popular source material exploring creativity, motherhood and existential angst—Where’d You Go, Bernadette could work.
The title suggests two things. Metaphorically, it refers to a disappeared genius. Bernadette Fox ceased to exist when she abandoned her architectural artistry for parenthood and, as far as the creative world knew, vanished.
In a less metaphorical manner, the title refers to the actual mystery driving the plot of Maria Semple’s novel—the story of a teenager using emails, news clippings and notes to try to piece together the whereabouts of her now-literally-missing mother.
That mystery is mainly gone from Linklater’s film adaptation, as Bernadette (the ever-exquisite Blanchett) doesn’t up and vanish until well after the 90-minute mark, and because the audience knows where she is all the while.
Instead, Linklater focuses on why she left in the first place. Because, what could have been an ideal situation for another woman—wealthy husband (Billy Crudup) and his super-attentive administrative assistant, precocious and adoring daughter (Emma Nelson), nice neighborhood (even if the neighbors hate her), good schools, money to burn on virtual personal assistants (who turn out to be Russian identity thieves)—welp, it just doesn’t seem to be enough for Bernadette.
There’s a lot to like about Where’d You Go, Bernadette, including a game cast and some gorgeous footage. Unfortunately, under all that is yet another fantasy about a rich white woman who needs to find herself.
In its worst moments, the film falls back on catty mean girlisms, as if the greatest nightmare a woman could face would be for the withering cliquishness of high school to survive into adulthood, the popular moms making you feel like an outcast all over again.
The filmmaker hits his stride, unsurprisingly, when pairing Blanchett with, well, basically anybody. Her one-on-one moments with Nelson, Kristin Wiig (as prissy neighbor Audrey), Laurence Fishburne (playing a former colleague) and Crudup (neutered as his character is) almost make up for the blandly directionless narrative.
Linklater can do comedy (School of Rock!!). He can certainly dive into motherhood (Boyhood). Nobody’d argue his insight and artistry when it comes to documenting a romantic relationship with its ups and downs (Sunset series). Frustratingly, with this film he simply cannot seem to decide which direction to take.
Comedic moments are abandoned before they land, emotional messiness is tidied into submission, dramatic moments are undercut before they can generate any tension.
The resulting, meandering tale doesn’t go much of anywhere.