Despite its premise, and the jigsaw puzzle of a novel by Maria Semple upon which it’s based, there isn’t much mystery to Where’d You Go, Bernadette? Based on the 2012 comedy novel of the same name, Where’d You Go, Bernadette? follows a picture-perfect family left reeling when the titular mother, an agoraphobic architect, suddenly goes missing. Semple’s novel is a character mystery, driven by Bernadette’s daughter Bee as she investigate’s her mother’s disappearance.
But as directed and co-written by Richard Linklater, Where’d You Go, Bernadette? lays it all on the table immediately, embodied by Cate Blanchett‘s zippy, mile-a-minute performance that rips through the film like a tsunami. Subtlety and enigma aren’t in the vocabulary of this film, which sees Linklater shedding his more naturalistic directing style in favor of the broad comedy that characterized his major studio films like School of Rock. But the absurd comedy stylings of Where’d You Go, Bernadette? end up clashing majorly with the film’s more understated themes about the power of artistic expression, resulting in a film that loses itself in the weeds.
In Where’d You Go, Bernadette? Blanchett plays the eponymous restless misanthrope who feels out of place in the peaceful suburban life she and her tech genius husband Elgin (Billy Crudup) and precious young daughter (Emma Nelson) have carved out for themselves. Living in a sprawling, half-renovated mansion in the middle of a neat suburban cul-de-sac in Seattle, Blanchett spends her time griping about her nagging neighbors to a virtual assistant in India and steadily chipping away at the renovations of their charmingly wild house. But after a series of misunderstandings and mishaps involving the housewife next door (a hilariously haughty Kristen Wiig) and bad anxiety prescriptions snowballs into an outright landscaping disaster, Elgin becomes concerned by Bernadette’s increasingly erratic behavior. When the FBI get involved over a case of identity theft involving Bernadette, he decides to stage an intervention with a well-intentioned but ill-informed therapist (a sorely underused Judy Greer), which quickly goes south. Bernadette escapes out the window, and Elgin and Bee are left scrambling to find out where she went.
But the movie isn’t very concerned with the mystery presented by its title. Instead, Where’d You Go, Bernadette painstakingly spends its time mapping out Bernadette’s character to the point that she’s the only one in the film that’s not a mystery. The rest of the characters — from her effortlessly cool husband (played with a handsome blandness by Crudup), to her wise-beyond-her-years daughter, to her hysterical neighbor Audrey (Wiig), and the single mom Soo-Lin (Zoë Chao) encroaching on Elgin — inevitably feel like cardboard characters meant to prop up the chic, thorny, larger-than-life artistic genius that is Bernadette, brought to life by an equally outsized Blanchett, who threatens to swallow the rest of the cast whole. Nelson’s quirky and sweet-mannered Bee may be the narrator of this story, but she’s virtually a non-entity in comparison to Blanchett.
But while Blanchett delivers an overpowering performance, the film starts to crumble around her. Is it an absurd comedy? Is it a character drama? Is it a wine-soaked domestic soap? Even Linklater doesn’t seem to be sure. The Last Flag Flying director leans into the character-driven domestic comedy for the first half of the film, which is more in line with the beach-reading over-40 female demographic that Where’d You Go, Bernadette‘s marketing team is so heavily targeting. The dialogue is sharp, witty, and honest — as it always is with a Linklater film. Linklater co-wrote the screenplay with Holly Gent and Vincent Palmo Jr., and the director’s touch of rambling monologues and wry observations are all there, along with some awkwardly inserted exposition in the form of a “video essay” that plays more like a low-budget documentary. But rather than Linklater’s usual natural, flowing poetry of everyday life communicated through tiny gestures and microexpressions, I couldn’t shake the feeling that Where’d You Go, Bernadette? and its specific brand of domestic comedy was outside of the director’s wheelhouse. He’s done broad comedy before, and on the opposite end of the spectrum, he’s done mundane, dialogue-driven character dramas. Linklater tries to draw upon both of these types with Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, and as a result, the film can’t nail down its tone. This is especially apparent when the film changes settings in the final third of the film, as Bernadette embarks on an introspective journey through the Antarctic. Where’d You Go, Bernadette? becomes ponderous and leisurely, a far cry from the zippy comedy of the first half.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette? does manage to tap into some intriguing themes: rather than following the book’s arc of a young girl piecing together a new image of her mother and discovering the infinite complexities of a person she had known her whole life, Linklater transforms the story into one about creators. As the film, and Bernadette’s prickly layers, unfold, it becomes clear that Bernadette’s overwhelming need to create is both her central problem and the solution. Bernadette’s story is a painfully relatable one, one of embracing her artistic drive after overcoming several heartbreaking professional and personal disappointments. Her passion project gets demolished by a smarmy real estate tycoon. She suffers several miscarriages before giving birth to a miracle baby, Bee. The film treats these tragedies with a subtle sensitivity, through a raw and vulnerable monologue by Blanchett, and it’s a gesture toward one of the most fully formed characterizations of a female character in a Linklater film. It’s a wonderful arc, but one that ultimately gets lost when the movie ends up making its way toward the book’s neat ribbon-wrapped ending.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette? is several films in one, all of which are slightly interesting, but none of which reach a satisfying conclusion. These different films are loosely threaded together by a relentlessly fun, incredibly watchable performance by Blanchett, but despite her greatest efforts, Where’d You Go, Bernadette? ultimately loses its way.
/Film Rating: 6.5 out of 10
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