Written and directed by Richard Linklater
Starring Cate Blanchett, Judy Greer and Kristen Wiig
MPAA rating: PG-13 for some strong language and drug material
by Melissa Strong
Where'd You Go, Bernadette (2019) adapts Maria Semple’s 2012 bestselling novel of the same name, the story of an eccentric, possibly unlikeable woman who goes missing before a family trip. Directed by Richard Linklater from a screenplay he cowrote with Holly Gent, Vincent Palmo, Jr., Michael H. Weber, and Scott Neustadter, the film features Cate Blanchett in the title role. With her big, dark sunglasses, bobbed hair, blunt-cut bangs, chic outfits, and icy demeanor, Blanchett’s Bernadette resembles an amazonian Joan Didion.
Bernadette is an enigma who spends her days dictating messages to a virtual assistant while battling her falling-apart home that once was a girls’ school. That crumbling house, perched on a hill and choked by blackberry vines, represents the troubled relationships in the family living there as well as Bernadette herself: mysterious, isolated, neglected, and potentially dangerous but also full of strange, beautiful surprises like a built-in confessional and a dog named Ice Cream.
Linklater initially struck me as an odd choice for a film with a compass oriented toward female experience -- I associate him with Dazed and Confused (1993) and that Ethan Hawke trilogy which costars Julie Delpy but somehow seems to focus on Hawke’s character, kind of like a lot of heterosexual relationships. Then I remembered Linklater’s opus Boyhood (2014), which I loved, largely due to Patricia Arquette’s award-winning performance as Olivia. Bernadette doesn’t feel as real as Olivia, and Boyhood is less mainstream in its style and sensibility. However, Where'd You Go, Bernadette impressively treats the self-actualization of an adult woman who gets to be complex and difficult. This should not be remarkable, but it is, due to the patriarchy’s longtime stranglehold on the film industry.
Bernadette isn’t as repugnant as Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) in Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018); rather, Bernadette’s peculiarities are magnified versions of the quirks all people have, whether or not they are pathologized as mental illness, developmental disorder, or something else. For this reason, she is easier to relate to but also harder to like. While Lee can’t control herself and generates pity, Bernadette could be nicer to her neighbors and chooses not to. Bernadette’s recognizable prickliness may make her a more three-dimensional and, therefore, more realistic character.
The film uses Bernadette’s conflicts with other mothers in their fancy Seattle neighborhood to condemn her and redeem her. “None of the other moms like you, Bernadette,” says Audrey (Kristen Wiig), the ringleader for various well-intentioned yet cringeworthy privileged white-lady crusades. Audrey’s right: Bernadette is kinda awful. But Audrey and her minions are so basic and annoying that you secretly cheer when Bernadette runs over Audrey’s foot, maybe on purpose, to avoid a conversation about the school fundraiser.
In spite of this, Bernadette and her absentee tech industry husband, the equally awful Elgin (Billy Crudup), managed to produce a lovely, well-adjusted kiddo (Emma Nelson). Indeed, Bee (Nelson) functions as Bernadette’s human credential. A touching car scene of a mother-daughter Cyndi Lauper singalong reveals the beautiful intimacy of this relationship, along with sides of Bernadette most people cannot or will not see.
Nelson is wonderful as Bee, but Wiig’s Audrey is my favorite character. When Bernadette climbs out the bathroom window to escape the intervention orchestrated by Elgin and Dr. Kurtz (Judy Greer), she runs to Audrey for help. And Audrey comes through, even after the crushed foot and other offenses including a mudslide and a ruined fundraiser. This seems perplexing until we realize that all Audrey has ever wanted is to be a friend to Bernadette, a realization that comes with a simple, deft change of expression on Wiig’s face. Audrey’s animosity melts away and she springs into action as Bernadette’s champion and accomplice.
Bernadette runs away to Antarctica, the destination chosen for the family vacation thwarted by Bernadette’s unraveling and subsequent disappearance. Of course, while on this journey she finds herself, reconnects with her family, and rediscovers her purpose (oh yeah, she’s an award-winning architect). A pre-departure scene with Laurence Fishburne as a former colleague foreshadows this, with Blanchett effectively portraying Bernadette coming to life while discussing her passion.
Bernadette’s journey parallels the expeditions of Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton, the pioneering Antarctic explorer of the early twentieth century. Both travelers share a gripping urge to travel to the South Pole and to do great things. They also both become restless and unfulfilled when unable to pursue these goals. However, it’s safe to say Shackleton received less criticism about his parenting, work-life balance, outfits, and inability to fit in.
I liked this cautionary-tale aspect of the movie, which posits that dreams deferred do indeed explode because moms require professional, intellectual, and creative engagement in order to live full and satisfying lives. I loved that Bernadette got to do this with her family’s love and support. And I didn’t really care that her husband was a less-developed character, since the story wasn’t about him. Moreover, it seems fair that Where'd You Go, Bernadette gives the male partner the kind of shallow treatment usually reserved for cinematic wives and girlfriends. (Plus, I never cared much for Billy Crudup, and then the exquisite memoir by his ex Mary-Louise Parker ruined him for me.) That said, there are enough comic moments, true-to-life characters, interesting plot twists, and shots of Antarctica to entertain a general audience. Even if you aren’t looking for a movie that takes strides toward evening out Hollywood’s gender imbalances, you likely will enjoy Where'd You Go, Bernadette.