Cate Blanchett, Emma Nelson, and Billy Crudup star in the Latest from Director Richard Linklater.
DIRECTED BY: RICHARD LINKLATER/2019
The novel, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” by Maria Semple, comes to the silver screen in the directorial hands of the always brilliant Richard Linklater, who shares writing credits alongside Holly Gent and Vince Palmo. Over the years, Linklater has become a master of dealing with the passing of time, especially in his beloved Before Trilogy, and in Boyhood. While these examples were actually done in “real time”, their stories also have characters wrestling with their idea of themselves in the past, present, and possible futures. When the ideal isn’t realized, or when reality is a far too sobering truth to face in light of the potential you once saw for yourselves that far exceeded your reach, how do you hang on and find a path forward?
Whether it’s with Jesse and Celine searching for their proverbial time machine in Before Midnight, or Mason’s desire to rush forward into adulthood where he will finally be able to break free from living under the choices made by his parents in Boyhood, time continues to march on. Sometimes slowly, and sometimes more quickly than we would like. This is where we find Bernadette (Cate Blanchett), a middle-aged mother of a young teen daughter named Bee (Emma Nelson). Bernadette was once the rising star in the male-dominated world of architecture, but after moving to Seattle where her husband Elgie (Billy Crudup) is developing the latest tech-gadget for Microsoft, Bernadette has lost herself amidst a mundane privileged suburban lifestyle surrounded by the elite.
Blanchett plays her part perfectly. While she clearly loves her daughter, she can be absolutely ruthless to her next-door neighbor Audrey (Kristen Wiig) and Audrey’s best friend Soo-Lin (Zoe Chao), who is also working alongside her husband, Elgie. Having spent nearly 2 years rehabbing her home, the house looks like it is barely past the demolition phase, and clearly Bernadette is in a creative doldrums. She isn’t sleeping, and Elgie finds a rather sizable bottle that is nearly full with a hodgepodge of various prescription pills. Finding Bernadette passed out at the pharmacists on a couch while walking to a lunch meeting only adds to Elgie’s worry, forcing him to bring in a therapist named Dr. Kurtz (Judy Greer) to help stage an intervention.
Cate Blanchett’s characterization of Bernadette is full-force, yet layered, channeling some of her Blue Jasmine eccentricities, yet with a more approachable tenderness, especially when it comes to Bee. Bee is every-bit the creative artist that Bernadette apparently was, and with her preparing to go to boarding school back east for High School, Bernadette is desperate to soak up every minute she has with her daughter, even if it means agreeing to she and Elgie taking Bee on a promised trip to Antarctica. As the trip looms, and Bernadette’s social anxieties and agoraphobia start to take over, and Dr. Kurtz and Elgie’s intervention take form, Bernadette must grapple with the woman she has become in contrast with the once passionate and creative genius she once was.
The cast is fantastic, especially Blanchett, and Kristen Wiig is very good in a great supporting role that she obviously loved portraying. She and Blanchett have strong comedic chemistry together and I’d love to see them paired together again. Billy Crudup is a fine actor who definitely deserves to be in more visible roles, and Laurence Fishburne always elevates whatever he is in.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette is poignant and touching, and like most of Linklater’s work, it masterfully makes the dialogue between the characters feel real, authentic, and effortless. Its humor is clever and subtle most of the time, but at times the film tries a bit hard to break into mainstream likability at the expense of the larger story. Some of the more outlandish gags, like a digital assistant service from India, are probably more constructs from the book which Linklater mostly makes somewhat plausible, but certain things like this do seem to stick out.
Fortunately, the cast and director are able to mostly hold an even tone and pacing, even when the ending tries to wrap up the conflict a bit too perfectly, with a proverbial bow on top. The ending is emotionally satisfying but seems to simply gloss over the deeper issues Bernadette was facing in her journey of self-reflection, for a quick-fix.
Linklater took the time in Before Midnight to explore whether Jesse and Celine could weather the passing of time and stay together in the midst of marital strife, facing personal failures and regrets of past decision. In Where’d You Go, Bernadette, the threads are all there, but the journey seems to take a shortcut that partially works, but ultimately comes up short, via an online video that gives the audience a backstory on Bernadette’s past successes, featuring cameos from Laurence Fishburne, Steve Zahn, and Megan Mullally, who play characters commenting on Bernadette’s career highs. It works partially because it gives us a spatial look at the true artistic nature Bernadette possesses. By seeing this, we also see how stifled she has become creatively, and how who she once was is slowly disappearing through her mundane day-to-day life. Where it fails is how it leads to the all too simple conclusion.
Despite any critiques, Where’d You Go, Bernadette is still a solid film that will pull your heart strings, and make you smile, and reflect. It will remind you again why Linklater should be required viewing, especially as he adapts this novel and yet still finds effective ways to wrestle with the issues he has become synonymous with. Namely, of the passing of time and how one views their own self-worth and success against their own past ideals, goals, and expectations that they wanted for themselves when they were just starting out. The way in which he can present it all with a little humor and a couple of gut-punches to the “feels” helps make it an enjoyable ride, even if its not his strongest offering.