Richard Linklater’s adaptation of Maria Semple’s 2012 novel “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” tries to mythologize the life of its complicated lead. The narrative opens with broad gestures and comedic set-ups often utilized by the type of quirky family dramedies that are featured at Sundance. But as the movie narrows its scope, Linklater peels away the superficial layers to reveal the vulnerability of these seemingly unrelatable Seattle millionaires.
Bernadette (Cate Blanchett) is a once-prominent talent in the world of conceptual architecture who gave up her creative passions to raise her health-risked daughter Bee (Emma Nelson) along with her Silicon Valley, TED-Talking husband Elgie (Billy Crudup). After years of coping with creative drought and personal traumas, Bernadette only confides in an electronic personal assistant by voice-dictated email. She has completely alienated and made enemies with her equally dramatic neighbor Audrey (Kristen Wiig), and she secretly hoards anti-psychotic medication from her loved ones who are increasingly worried about her evasive behavior.
The first two-thirds of the film spends an inordinate amount of time world-building and explaining Bernadette’s fragile mental state. This groundwork pays off as Blanchett brings the potentially reductive role down to earth with a strategically nuanced performance. However, the story only kicks into gear following a disastrous family intervention that sends Bernadette on a truncated journey of self-discovery at an Antarctic expedition. By this point, the movie quickly runs out of gas and sputters to a rushed and unsatisfying ending.
This unnecessary front-loading of plot is only emphasized by the script’s achingly literal dialogue in which the characters seem to have no inferiority, constantly espousing page-length monologues about their feelings, their histories, their motivations and, most-annoyingly, outright explicating the film’s themes. The audience is left without a way to engage with these characters because any path of reliability we may try to establish on our own is road-blocked by clunky blocks of exposition.
Linklater usually likes to find drama in the everyday or the mundane. His films often explore the moments of our lives we don’t bother to remember. After years of fruitful experimentations like “Boyhood,” “Bernie,” and “Before Midnight,” the caring and sharing, sitcom-ish nature of this story — while occasionally interesting — can’t help but feel comparatively pedestrian.
“Where’d You Go, Bernadette” isn’t all bad. Crudup and Blanchett are a strange mismatch of a married couple, but somehow their dramatic strain resonates, and they manage to establish emotional realities despite the screenplay’s suffocating lack of mystery. Though not as affecting or as tragic as Blanchett’s award-winning turn in the similarly pitched “Blue Jasmine,” this is another strong portrayal of how a family deals with a spouse or parent who suffers from depression and anxiety but refuses to acknowledge it. Had the film used more of its run-time to show Bernadette’s therapeutic transformation rather than moping in the backstory for the first two thirds, we may have been better locked into her mental journey of self-acceptance.
Cassidy Robinson is a former Idaho State University student with a master’s degree in film studies from Orange County’s Chapman University. He is currently working as a media journalist in Los Angeles, California.