Film Review – Where’d You Go, Bernadette
Where'd You Go, Bernadette
I don’t know if Where’d You Go, Bernadette (2019) is one of the worst films of the year, but it is definitely one of the most disappointing. It’s adapted by Maria Semple’s bestselling novel, directed and cowritten by Richard Linklater – creator of Slacker (1990) and the Before Sunrise trilogy – and is led by one of this generation’s best actresses, Cate Blanchett. And yet, the final product is a limp, lifeless story of a person whose worst enemy are themselves. You know you’re in trouble when your focus turns to the time on your watch than what’s occurring on the screen. This is a “Woe Is Me” tale of someone of comfort and wealth going through an existential crisis because they are an ARTIST that must CREATE!
We learn early on that Bernadette Fox (Blanchett) is living in a rut. She was once a promising architect until an ugly situation involving her greatest creation – the famed “20 Mile House” – put her into a decades long exile. She now spends her days ignoring her neighbor Audrey (Kristen Wiig), living with her tech genius husband Elgie (Billy Crudup) in a marriage that’s more like an arrangement, and preparing herself for the day her daughter Bee (Emma Nelson) heads off to boarding school. She occupies a half-dilapidated home overrun by weeds and brush, and recoils at anyone that shows kindness to her. As much as she hates to admit it, Bernadette is slowly but surely falling deeper into depression. Worst yet, her exile has her living in dreary Seattle.
Now hold on for one second. As a fellow resident of The Emerald City, I take offense at how the film treats our town like an outpost of Bernadette’s despair. The narrative portrays Seattle as though rain is the only weather we ever experience. In the first half, it is constantly pouring, a heavy-handed metaphor for Bernadette’s troubled mindset. Anyone who simply thinks it rains here all the time are misguided. Much of the talk about Seattle revolves around Bernadette getting out by any means necessary, like she couldn’t create something special right where she is.
Elgie becomes concerned that Bernadette’s increasing depression has become a danger to themselves and to the safety of Bee. He attempts to stage an intervention to get her some help, but instead of accepting a helping hand Bernadette panics and runs away. The way the narrative treats mental health like something that can be cured by going on an extended vacation borders on being careless. Where does Bernadette retreat to? Antarctica, of all places. The second half features Bernadette trying to find some spark of inspiration while Elgie and Bee try to track her down.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette is a combination of comedy that isn’t funny, and drama that isn’t dramatic. It doesn’t help that Linklater’s direction has no energy. The pacing moves at a glacial speed, where characters talk endlessly in expositional monologues where they spell out exactly what they’re thinking and how they’re feeling. The narrative doesn’t allow us to enter these people’s lives because the dialogue leaves everything out in the open, never letting us connect the dots on an emotional level. Everything about Bernadette’s background is detailed in an extended, documentary-like video where we get strange cameos from the likes of Laurence Fishburne, Steve Zahn, and Megan Mullally. We’re basically getting the information in shorthand, like the film is giving us a cheat sheet of Bernadette’s life instead of showing it to us.
The sequences set in Seattle and Antarctica act like two completely separate movies. At first, we think that a major point of tension deals with Bernadette’s relationship with Audrey, but that plotline completely disappears once we head down to the great white south. There are hints of a flirtation between Elgie and his assistant Soo-Lin (Zoe Chao) but that ultimately goes nowhere. The narrative attempts to go off in these different directions but stumbles onto the idea that being in frigid weather conditions will somehow spur Bernadette’s soul.
Cate Blanchett tries her darndest to make Bernadette a living, breathing character. Her performance ranges from a whole field of emotions – from determined and optimistic to hopeless and sorrowful. She tries to be funny when required and serious when called for, but her efforts aren’t enough to uplift the material. It also doesn’t help that she played a much more convincing version of this character in a far better film, Blue Jasmine (2013). I urge you to see that instead, you’ll have a better time than what you’ll get with this.
The title Where’d You Go, Bernadette is clearly phrased to be a question, and yet the movie (as well as the book) does not include the “?”. The title itself is incorrectly written. A minor nitpick, but it works as an appropriate metaphor for what we get: a story that is painted in large brushstrokes with the details ignored. I’m glad that the people involved got paid for their work, but I highly doubt any of them will point to this as a career highlight.