There was a time when even Richard Linklater’s misfires stood out as the work of an idiosyncratic talent.
There was a time when even Richard Linklater’s misfires stood out as the work of an idiosyncratic talent. Though rarely a formally daring filmmaker, Linklater’s abiding gift for observing and empathizing with the quirks of his characters made him a kind of shambolic Robert Altman of the Generation X indie scene. But ever since Boyhood, Linklater’s ambitious experiment in real-time filmmaking that was ultimately rendered in conservative aesthetic and narrative terms, the director has turned increasingly to pleasing, diverting pablum, reflecting the most banal attributes of his most mainstream work with none of its deepening oddity. Where’d You Go, Bernadette, an adaptation of Maria Semple’s book of the same name, epitomizes this new normal. Not a disastrous misfire, it instead is so bland and inoffensive that it evaporates from the mind on contact, the sort of work you expect to see clogging Netflix Originals instead of coming from a great name.
At face value, Bernadette (Cate Blanchett) fits well within Linklater’s usual character parameters. A once legendary architect who gave up her career out of a combination of maternal care and a mental breakdown, Bernadette is the latest example of Linklater’s recurring type of the creative but stagnant figure. As far back as Slacker, Linklater’s films have been full of people whose restless spirits and vision have been held back by their own refusal or inability to act on them, and watching Bernadette putter about her dilapidated house, with its stained walls and vines coming in through the floorboards, showcases that paralyzing indecisiveness to an extreme.
But Blanchett’s performance here suffers the same flaw as her hollow work in Blue Jasmine, that of aiming for the raw-nerve mania of Gena Rowlands in a Cassavetes film but ending up with a twee, performatively neurotic form of screwball comedy where you can see every practiced mannerism from space. Bernadette blanches at public interactions but talks a mile a minute in private conversation, baldly stating all of her anxieties and grievances. Worst of all are scenes of Bernadette using voice dictation to send messages to an unseen virtual assistant, the effect of which is to let her ramble out loud every single thought in her head, from schemes to get out of social obligations to her feelings on her life and the people in it. In effect, every single one of the character’s interior thoughts is stated aloud, removing any sense of actual humanity in Bernadette and rendering her as transparently theatrical.
Adding to the artificial, twee nature of this approach is the film’s framing narrative, set in motion by Bernadette’s precocious teen daughter, Bee (Emma Nelson), asking to go on a family trip to Antarctica for Christmas break. Much of the film’s first half repetitively fixates on Bernadette’s anxiety of going on such a trip, which aggravates her already uneasy relationship with those around her, especially the stuffy, upper-crust parents of Bee’s school, epitomized by den mother (and Bernadette’s neighbor), Audrey (Kristen Wiig). The film is at its best when leaning into a comic civil war between the two women over Audrey’s fury at Bernadette’s unkempt home, though the class comedy that should sit at the heart of this feud is absent as Bernadette herself comes from such privilege and wealth that she is merely the eccentric foil to Audrey’s more prim and proper prosperity.
The second half of the film, which attempts to confront Bernadette’s clear mental illness and reckon with the events that led her to her present state of decay, fail to build any solid foundation of pathos because the film is too busy announcing what ails Bernadette too quickly for her misery to take root and tease the audience as to its source. The other characters lack her rapid-fire comic conception, nor do they come across as realistic or hiding greater depths. Bee is so reflexively defensive of her mother that we never get a sense that she second-guesses her mom’s choices, while Bernadette’s husband, Elgin (Billy Crudup), is portrayed as an oblivious workaholic who fears his wife despite the contours of Crudup’s work shading Elgin’s tech-biz long hours against his desire to provide for his unemployed wife and their child. The title of the film asks a question that is answered almost as soon as Bernadette’s fraying mental state leads her to run away, reflective of a literalism that turns the film leaden with abandoned subtext.