Where’d You Go, Bernadette? wants to be a deep, philosophical treatise on identity in the modern world. That the film’s title ends up serving as rhetorical question — with an easy, pat answer — is a big part of the problem. Director Richard Linklater chronicles one woman’s midlife crisis — Bernadette withdraws from the world, and her family — and is awash in empty signifiers of 21st Century, upper middle class ennui. Bernadette Fox (Cate Blanchett) is a bundle of neurotic energy, a once-famous architect who abandoned her career, and her artistic aspirations, after facing one conflict too many. Now she’s settled into being a mother and a homemaker, although the house she lives in — with her husband, Elgie (Billy Crudup), and teenage daughter, Bee (an outstanding Emma Nelson) — is an incomplete mess of a structure, this being an obvious (and heavy-handed) metaphor for Bernadette’s own stasis and dereliction. When Bee suggests a family trip to Antarctica, Bernadette goes into a tizzy, floundering about as the fragile, barely erected façade of her comfortable domesticity comes crashing down around her. Most of this is, strangely, played for broad comedy. Ultimately, in an act of superficial enlightenment, Bernadette absconds from the cozy confines of her suburban life and goes on the trip by herself. This, also, is played mostly for laughs (and a bit of easy pathos). Blanchett does outstanding work whenever she’s paired with the young Nelson; the scenes between Bernadette and Bee are really the heart of this film, and the two actresses share an easy, unforced chemistry when they’re onscreen together. There’s something about Nelson that seems to ground Blanchett, facilitating a more nuanced, natural performance. In any case, these are the only scenes where Bernadette looks like a recognizable human being — instead of a collection of actorly tics and overly-mannered shtick, a kind of strained, quirky whimsy that grates. Where’d You Go, Bernadette? is a mess of broad caricatures, with a supporting cast of character actors that goes largely wasted on messy, dead-end narrative strands.
Searching for meaning and rediscovering one’s creativity would appear to be fertile ground for Linklater’s particular brand of chilled-out philosophical musing. But even working from his own screenplay (cowritten with Holly Gent and Vincent Palmo), based on Maria Semple’s bestselling novel, Linklater can’t seem to find a way in to this material — so he crams a bunch of tones together that never coalesce into a unified whole.
Linklater is one of the great humanist filmmakers of our era, adept at low-key, just-hanging-out scenarios that quietly smuggle in big themes in gentle, unassuming ways. He’s a poet of the mundane, finding beauty in the quotidian. It’s unclear exactly where Where’d You Go, Bernadette? goes so wrong, becomes so dissatisfying; its narrative backbone of searching for meaning and rediscovering one’s creativity would appear to be fertile ground for Linklater’s particular brand of chilled-out philosophical musing. But even working from his own screenplay (cowritten with Holly Gent and Vincent Palmo), based on Maria Semple’s bestselling novel, Linklater can’t seem to find a way in to this material — so he crams a bunch of tones together that never coalesce into a unified whole. The right pitch eludes him — and Blanchett’s capital ‘A’ acting doesn’t help. Linklater excels at juxtaposing the relaxed vibe of his characters against specific structural constraints, usually temporally-based. Dazed and Confused and Before Sunrise are both day-in-the-life set ups, and Before Sunset and Tape take place seemingly in real time. The unique genesis of Boyhood was much discussed upon its release, and it, along with the Before films, present fairly rare examples of long term, time based projects (essentially fictional versions of Michael Apted’s documentary series Up). Even a straightforward, mainstream comedy like School of Rock conforms itself to Jack Black’s outsized personality, allowing ample time for musical interludes and long spaces where characters simply enjoy the act of performing. Questions of fidelity to source material, and how to give voice to largely internalized thought processes, are issues with many adaptations of popular novels. And Linklater himself has certainly struggled with this before, particularly in his adaptation of Fast Food Nation, a sprawling, multi-pronged narrative that never adds up to more than the sum of its parts. Where’d You Go, Bernadette? is trying to get at something in the heart of contemporary society, that sense that something has gone awry and everything would be ok if we could just get ‘it’ back, somehow — whatever ‘it’ may be. But the film ends on a cliched, blissed-out image of a reunited family, as if to suggest that this was the answer all along. (It’s not.)