Where’d the buzz for Where’d You Go, Bernadette go? Why is a film based on screenwriter turned author Maria Semple’s bestselling novel, directed by Richard Linklater, starring Cate Blanchett and Kristen Wiig, quietly being shepherded (read: dumped) into cinemas in the dog days of August after four date changes? Well, the answer to the question is as mystery-free as the movie itself: it’s an inglorious mess.
Bernadette (Blanchett) is uneasy with her life and with life in general. She’s semi-agoraphobic, choosing time with family in her crumbling, extravagant, ever-dripping home rather than the risk of encountering the horror of other people and “the banality of life”. Her tech bro husband (Billy Crudup) is worried about her descent into pill-popping madness while her daughter, Bee (Emma Nelson), hopes that a family trip to Antarctica will help bring them all together. But when a mishandled blackberry bush results in the destruction of the house of prissy neighbour Audrey (Wiig) and when, for reasons too convoluted to explain, the FBI come knocking, Bernadette decides to flee.
But while the film’s teasing ads might suggest that Bernadette’s whereabouts are both unknown and the talk of the town, it’s made clear from the first scene that she heads to Antarctica alone, and while it might make for a juicy viral campaign, in reality no one outside of her family really cares where she is. Bernadette is a brittle, difficult character without any friends or connection to reality, and there’s a tough task at hand for Linklater and co-writers Holly Gent and Vincent Palmo Jr to get us to invest in her journey. Her dysfunctions are often diverting and the film almost has something of value to say about the crushing difficulty of trying to define a seemingly indefinable sense of anxiety with the world around one’s self. But these are brief flashes of interest rather than anything sustained. It’s the kind of adaptation that is so misjudged that you end up struggling to see why anyone thought it a good idea to adapt in the first place.
Perhaps on page the tonal dissonance felt less extreme, but on screen Linklater is at pains to try and do too much at once, his film noisily bounding around with very little result. The painfully quirky details of the plot, from a scam involving a Delhi-based digital assistant to a “blackberry abatement specialist”, clash against an often serious-minded portrait of a woman dealing with her mental health while satirical potshots at everything from mommy culture to the tech industry to political correctness play out on such a broad canvas that nothing ever cuts deep. It’s rare for Linklater to centre a female protagonist and while Bernadette has superficial layers (she’s a mother who craves a return to the creativity of her former self), she never leaps off the screen in a way that a project with a title such as this seems to require. One of Linklater’s main issues is that he can’t quite figure out how to tell her story, so information is conveyed via inconsistent chunks of narration from her daughter, a clumsily explanatory documentary, an awkwardly inserted Ted talk or other characters talking about her in exposition-heavy dialogue. It lumbers when it should feel lithe right through to a sappy, sudden ending, and sadly even the performances, from a stacked cast, aren’t enough to lift it from mediocrity.
Blanchett can be a breathtakingly accomplished performer but she can also fall into excess, quite often in her American roles and here, still relying on a sub-Hepburn accent, she has lost. Stuck in an over-performed schtick, she fails to convince us that Bernadette is anything more than a collection of well-worn tics. Crudup fares a little better, almost resembling a real person with real concerns, Wiig has little to do but does it well while brief, thankless appearances from Laurence Fishburne, Megan Mullally, Steve Zahn and Judy Greer could easily have been left on the cutting room floor. Speaking of which, the film’s long delays suggest that much of it ended up there, chopped and chucked around in order to make the film feel like less of a patchwork construct.
Where’d you go, Bernadette? Eh, who cares.