It’s More Light Entertainment than Character Study, Comedy or Mystery
Even just a light, entertaining summer movie, like the newly released, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” gets a bit elevated thanks to the chameleon-like actor Cate Blanchett in the lead. Per usual, Blanchett is a joy to watch perform, and in this movie, that fact is no exception, but it may not be enough to make the movie an indie darling on one hand, or commercial bait with wide appeal on the other. Adapted from the wildly popular novel of the same title by Maria Semple, producers are no doubt banking on the book’s built-in audience to translate to box office appeal. They might end up disappointed- the book fans and the producers. “Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” is about a quirky, reluctant, if not resentful, suburban housewife who relocated with her tech engineer husband to outer Seattle 20 year earlier. They transplanted from Los Angeles where Bernadette Fox thrived as young, cutting edge architect on the rise. But when she was undermined with her last residential project, it left her flailing. As such, the couple headed North, allowing her husband, Elgie, played by Billy Crudup, to take advantage of a prominent position with Microsoft. Once there, then suffering a series of miscarriages that took its emotional toll, Bernadette became a shell of her former self. Eventually, they were able to conceive. Now 12, Bee ( Emma Nelson) is Bernadette’s world and they each other’s best friend. But that is not enough to smooth Bernadette’s rough edges and deep seated resentment. Bernadette is oblivious to her increasingly trying attitudes, while her husband is decidedly not, and contemplating drastic changes.
Bernadette’s somewhat off-putting personality and constantly vocalized negative opinions are only outweighed by her aversion to people and somewhat abrasive manner. The notion of socializing with anyone beyond her family of three catapults her into anxiety and turmoil, and self-medication is a welcome option. She detests her fellow school mom’s and the community at large, most especially her uptight, annoying next door neighbor, a cliched character, played aptly by Kristen Wiig. They couldn’t be more opposite- to Bernadette’s give-a-shit attitude, Audrey throws herself wholly into school functions and the community, and she is obsessed with her house and yard. Both view each other as the bane of their existence. Audrey aside, there is no bigger target for Bernadette’s negativity than the city of Seattle itself, and the only thing neglected more than her marriage, is their monstrosity of a house. Although it was purchased many years ago when they moved to the area, it looks as though it hasn’t been touched for decades longer. The yard is full of weeds and overgrown berry vines, while the interior seems a hopelessly flawed and neglected as the exterior.
Through it all, the one bright spot in the couple’s life is Bee. It is Bee’s exceptional academics, precarious ways, and endearing personality that convinces her parents that a trip to Antartica over the holiday break is a promise to her they should keep. Bernadette is horrified at the prospect of such an adventure, not to mention having to interact with other travelers. As a result, she enlists the aid of what she assumes is a practical online assistant. Through a series of events, post the trip decision, and the threat that she may, in fact, not be going on the family vacation or it may not happen for any of them at all, Bernadette escapes her imploding life and goes to Antartica solo. Along the way, she faces her fears, while finally recognizing the source of her angst, realizing she has suppressed her creativity and passion for far too long. In searching for his wayward wife, Elgie has a few revelations of his own. “Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” begins and ends with the same question posed to the protagonist- where are you going? This appropriately establishes it as a movie of self exploration and self discovery, but does not flesh out the character’s issues and insights, or the film’s theme, which should be layered and nuanced.
The movie is directed by Richard Linklater, but definitely not a Richard Linklater film. He is known for truly clever independent films with observational characters and witty banter, such as “Dazed and Confused” and “Slacker,” and dramatic, experimental-type films, like “Before Midnight” and 2014 “Boyhood,” which earned him several well-deserved Oscar nominations. While “Bernadette” is entertaining and charming enough, especially for this time of year, it misses opportunities to be categorized as a character study film of any depth.