There’s something exhilarating and befuddling in the structure to so many Richard Linklater films, at least to me. Where’d You Go, Bernadette, the American independent’s latest feature, is certainly based upon the 2012 novel of the same name by Maria Semple, so the film’s sense of abrupt and kinetic plotting has pre-existing roots, no doubt. Still, the way we’re presented with the anxiety and struggle of titular hero Bernadette Fox (Cate Blanchett), a renowned and eccentric architect, left me feeling a bit a touch disaffected, more than a little baffled, and not always on board with the cruise.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette
Director: Richard Linklater
Release Date: August 16, 2019
After dropping out of the limelight abruptly for decades, Bernadette has found a quiet, reclusive life with her beloved teenager daughter Bee (Emma Nelson) and her successful tech-pioneer husband Elgin (Billy Crudup). In her vast a rustic home, Bernadette largely spends her time feuding with the posh neighbors and dictating emails to her remote assistant whom she’s never met--more on that in the whirlwind plot--until a series of escalations in her life draw attention to her manic and antisocial behavior, prompting intervention from her family. Subsequently taking flight, a pseudo-mystery ensues in which Bernadette reaches out in existential crisis for her art, and a means of righting herself to get well, and rejoin her loved ones.
There’s a large amount of misdirection in the marketing for Where’d You Go, including the above trailer. At least, it would seem to me. Certainly the film features Bernadette’s bizarre escape as the crux of the film, but by time I reached that point I was less concerned with her leap of faith and spontaneity and more trying to process the insane whirlwind of events that got us to this point, including but not limited to: Mudslides, comical spats with neighbors not unlike those seen in The Burbs, Russian mobsters, and so forth. As one unfamiliar with Semple’s source-novel I can only assume the script, co-written by Linklater, Holly Gent, and Vincent Palmo Jr, is a faithful one. In which case I’m curious how much of Bernadette’s flight to the Arctic is seen as a focal point of the story.
The problem for me with Linklater’s film was that so much of its rush of ideas and events that get us to Bernadette being seen as a potential psychotic and danger to herself feels like a mad binge to cram, only getting to the main course when she’s finally found what the heck the film is about: An artist who’s lost her art.
Early on, Laurence Fishburne shows up for a scene as an old colleague of Bernadette’s who helps her understand this about herself; “You must create.” That Fishburne, a tremendous talent, appears for a mere scene (give or take) is at least a credit to Linklater’s sensibilities. He is, in the best way, unconventional, spending much time setting up one of the many “dominoes to be tumbled” in Bernadette’s unraveling, or using such a terrific actor for a minor yet important moment in the development of another character. While I think much of Where’d You Go, Bernadette cannot be called a triumph, there’s at least something inspiring to watch Linklater assemble his film, with occasional long strides and quick leaps of pace, both where you’d expect them least.
And perhaps that’s in keeping with the film’s titular Bernadette, a get-out-of-her-way Cate Blanchett who shows off her skills even if the film feels uneven. Bernadette’s transformation, mid-sentence, often, from manic storyteller to weeping artist almost recalls someone like Robin Williams, whose sadness in a film like Good Will Hunting was always palpable beneath even the jokes. All of the cast hold their own, though none are given the meat assigned to Bernadette. This is her world, and we’re all just living in it.
And while Bernadette’s struggle with her cocktail of anxiety, depression, and existentialism is one we can all relate to in some capacity, I couldn’t help but be constantly drawn to the overbearing wealth and luxury on display. These are characters whose economic whims (A trip to Antarctica? Why not! Canceling expensive appointments at the last minute? Who cares!) are the size of months of necessities for your everyday, normal people. There’s something alienating in watching characters who live and dine like the richest of rich and struggle with themselves and their egos, while their material comfort isn’t touched upon at all. I’m not asking for this or every film to be an indictment of the upper class, though the lengths to which Linklater and company would almost seem to avoid discussing the privilege on display feels distracting from any emotional investment an audience might have.
Like its star, Where’d You Go, Bernadette is a bit of an anomaly. Interesting perhaps for its brash and bold pacing, it, for the same reason, feels like a bit of a mess of subplots and scenes that, in their literary origins, might have felt more lethargic and sensible. Unfolding on the big screen over the course of 109 minutes though, you might start wondering less where Bernadette’s gone and more where this whole film is going.