Richard Linklater’s latest removes the mystery from the Marie Semple novel, but ends up a flawed but welcome reflection on aging and creativity.
If movies about male mid-life crises could fill a metaphorical library, women-centric versions would take up just a single bookshelf. For all the nagging wife stereotypes Hollywood has offered up over the years, there’s been too little time spent exploring the nuanced emotional realities of women aging into their 40s and beyond, grappling with family and career priorities and the tricky ways they intertwine. In her best-selling 2012 novel Where’d You Go, Bernadette, Marie Semple turned one woman’s midlife crisis into a comedic mystery about a missing mom and her teenage daughter’s mission to find her.
Richard Linklater’s new film adaptation downplays the intrigue and presents a character study instead. In this case, the title is existential rather than literal: What happened to the young, groundbreaking creative that Bernadette Fox (Cate Blanchett) used to be, and how can she get her back?
It doesn’t always work. Drenched in heightened whimsy and heavily overplotted, Where’d You Go, Bernadette is an odd, uneven film, and there’s more about it that misses than hits. The supporting characters are cartoonish, the third act is choppy, and Linklater never quite gets a comfortable handle on the satirical screwball tone of the source material. Still, the moments that do work are so lovely that they almost make the rest worth sitting through. Underneath the film’s try-hard twee exterior, Linklater crafts a moving mother/daughter story and an emotionally honest portrait of a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
Bernadette herself is winningly brought to life by Blanchett, operating well outside the high fantasy and highbrow period piece aesthetics that are so often her bread and butter. It’s almost shocking to see her in the capri pants, striped shirts, and oversized sunglasses of a wealthy, chicly disheveled stay-at-home mom in Seattle. Bernadette takes the stay-at-home part rather seriously. She’s not agoraphobic, exactly, but her general distaste for the outside world and the people who reside in it keep her inside more often than not. She farms out her day-to-day responsibilities to a New Delhi-based virtual assistant, narrating long emails that nod to the epistolary form of the novel. A former architect, she’s perpetually futzing around with half-finished home improvement projects in her dilapidated Victorian mansion of a home—the bane of a block of otherwise perfectly manicured suburban cookie-cutter perfection and a particular eyesore for Bernadette’s meticulous neighbor Audrey (Kristen Wiig).
Underneath the film’s try-hard twee exterior, Linklater crafts a moving mother/daughter story and an emotionally honest portrait of a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
Bernadette secretly (and sometimes not so secretly) enjoys pissing Audrey off. In fact, she seems to enjoy pissing the whole world off. The only people Bernadette can stand are her husband Elgin (Billy Crudup), a soft-spoken tech genius at Microsoft, and her precocious middle school-aged daughter Bee (Emma Nelson). The latter relationship serves as the beating heart of the film, and it’s where Linklater’s humanistic skills shine brightest. Driving home from school, Bernadette and Bee duet on Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time,” unembarrassed and carefree in their love for the song and their love for each other, something Blanchett and Nelson beautifully capture. Whatever animosity Bernadette may have against the world, there’s nothing but warmth in her relationship with her daughter, the only person who seems to genuinely understand her.
So when Bee decides she’d like to attend a prestigious boarding school across the country, it sends an already frazzled Bernadette spiraling. Coupled with her escalating rivalry with Audrey, Bee’s request to take an impromptu family vacation to Antarctica, and Elgin’s growing concerns about his wife’s well-being, Bernadette is forced to confront traumas she long ago buried and defense mechanisms she long ago erected. Unfortunately, just as she starts to take a clear-eyed look at who she’s become, who she used to be, and who she’d like to be, her judgmental community starts to conspire against her—pushing Bernadette’s fight or flight instincts to the extreme.
Working with credited co-writers Holly Gent and Vincent Palmo Jr., Linklater is interested in exploring the ways women, and mothers in particular, often subsume their personal dreams for their families without even realizing that’s what they’re doing. The film reveals Bernadette’s backstory in slow drips, including the heartbreaking professional and personal setbacks that caused her to leave behind the pioneering eco-friendly designs that seemed poised to revolutionize the architectural world. What she gained is a beautiful relationship with Bee. What she lost is her sense of self, and potentially her grip on reality. An old colleague (Laurence Fishburne) warns that creators who don’t create become a menace to society, and Blanchett plays Bernadette with a mixture of dignity and childish impulsiveness that makes it tricky to tell whether she needs an outside intervention or just someone to see her full humanity beyond her roles of wife and mother.
In that way, Bernadette’s story feels like a companion piece to Céline’s similar concerns in Linklater’s Before Midnight, although, tonally, Where’d You Go, Bernadette is attempting to be more of a mainstream crowd-pleaser in the vein of his 2003 comedy School Of Rock. It doesn’t fully hit the mark, however. Like its titular character, Where’d You Go, Bernadette is an acquired taste with appreciable depths beneath its oddball surface. (It’s also the rare film to make the crisp, snowy calm of Antarctica look like a vacation destination worth visiting.)
The performers aren’t always in sync with the film’s tone or with each other, and the stylish costume and production design do most of the heavy lifting when it comes to building a coherent world out of a sitcom-ish plot. Still, in a cinematic landscape where stories of women finding themselves are too few and far between, Where’d You Go, Bernadette is a welcome gift, even if it’s an imperfect one.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette sneaks out of its old life and into movie theaters August 16.