Richard Linklater is a director who alternates between doing commercial fare such as School of Rock, and more personal, quasi-experimental films such as Boyhood. With his latest film, Where’d You Go, Bernadette, Linklater has both feet firmly planted in the land of commerce. Boasting a talented cast led by Cate Blanchett as the titular character, Linklater’s film is a loose adaptation of the best-selling novel of the same name. Fans of the novel might take exception to how loose. Chief among the changes: Bernadette is around an awful lot for a story about someone who disappears. In the novel, Bernadette isn’t even introduced until hundreds of pages in. But when you have access to an actress as talented and popular as Blanchett, it’s no surprise that Linklater and the producers couldn’t resist making her character the central focus. Rather than unraveling the mystery of a missing mom, we accompany Bernadette along every step of her journey.
In her single years, Bernadette was a genius architect. Now she’s the housewife of a genius software developer, played by Billy Crudup, and mother of a teenage girl, impressively portrayed by newcomer Emma Nelson. Bernadette drives a brand new Jaguar. What drives the film is Bernadette’s antisocial behavior. Just the thought of vacationing on a crowded cruise ship stresses her out. In essence, this is a film about rich white people problems.
The film is packed with symbolic references to Bernadette’s social issues. A mudslide represents her anger, a leaky roof her marital problems, and a personal assistant stationed in India, to whom she communicates only via email, underlines her aversion to human interactions. Unfortunately, her assistant, who she confides to more than her husband, opens the door to a subplot that doesn’t really pay off. After Bernadette’s neurosis inadvertently leads to a legal situation that can’t be ignored, she flees from her husband’s attempt to stage an intervention.
Blanchett is arguably one of the greatest actors alive. Where’d You Go, Bernadette’s main attraction is watching her flex her thespian muscles. In a touching moment of heartfelt emotion, she somehow manages to communicate gratitude, relief and love all in one teary-eyed expression of joy. But as good as Blanchett is, Linklater’s direction puts her at odds with Bernadette’s supposed misanthropy. Early in the film, Bernadette’s daughter discourages her mom from attending a show she’s putting on with a bunch of kindergartners. “The words are too cute. You’ll die from cuteness,” she tells her. The same could be said of Blanchette’s performance. Unlike Melissa McCarthy’s convincing portrayal of a misanthrope in 2018’s Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Bernadette is, more often than not, charming, funny and tries way too hard to be cute – character traits mirrored and accentuated by the chirpy musical score.
Storytelling-wise, characters traverse insane distances as effortlessly as crossing the street. Their privileged status provides everything they need. Reunions and resolutions unfold with clockwork precision. It’s all too neat and tidy and in service of a story that’s desperately trying to win over audiences. Ultimately, it’s a feel-good movie. If that’s your cup of tea, you’re going to enjoy the heady brew that Linklater & Co. have created with Where’d You Go, Bernadette.
For KSQD’s Film Gang, this is Paul Kanieski.