For a movie that bases its whole hook around the missing status of its lead character – neuroses personified, Bernadette Fox – it’s rather ironic that they’re only a disappearing act for a minute portion of the film’s relatively swift running time.
An adaptation of Maria Semple’s best-selling 2012 novel of the same name, Where’d You Go, Bernadette? is a middle-tier effort from writer/director Richard Linklater (School of Rock, Dazed and Confused) about an agoraphobic-ish architect who has remained something of an enigma within her field for the better part of 20 years. Instead of actively working, Bernadette Fox (Cate Blanchett, spitting out oft-unnatural dialogue in the most casual of manners) has remained in her home, tending to her loving daughter (and self-proclaimed best friend) (Emma Nelson, making a fine feature debut), which, in turn, has driven a wedge between her and her long-suffering (at least from his perspective) husband Elgin (Billy Crudup).
We gather from the sprawling, yet work-in-progress estate Bernadette and her family are living in that project distraction is something that she needs in order to fuel her own energy; though the joy she seems to have in sending rambling voice messages to her virtual assistant in India, as well as the property battles with her insufferable neighbour, Audrey (Kristen Wiig, always a pleasure), keep her in energetic spirits.
The film makes no apologies for the fact that Bernadette is a mess and, thankfully, no clear villain/heroine lines are drawn in the creations of these characters. Bernadette is infuriating at times, as is Audrey, but so often do we find ourselves siding with each of them in whichever “wealthy white people problems” they seem to engage in. Similarly, Elgin isn’t painted as a bad guy either – a trope that easily could’ve been adhered to – merely a stern voice of reason, but there are times when he refuses to see beyond Bernadette’s stubbornness that it feels all a little too frustrating.
“A menace to society” is perhaps the best description for Bernadette’s current mentality, one noted by her former mentor (Laurence Fishburne, in the briefest of appearances) when he deducts that the lack of creation on her end has driven her to her own predicament. It’s with that incredibly apt description that we see the thematic property …Bernadette hopes to form, it’s just a shame then that with the film’s clarity comes its ironic undoing.
As Bernadette disappears into the initial unknown, so too does much of the interest and character dynamic that has been laid out. Threatened with an intervention from a concerned Elgin and a quietly stern psychiatrist (Judy Greer) who thinks she should be committed (“voluntarily”, of course), Bernadette goes AWOL and makes good on the Antarctica vacation the family had planned – one she spends much of the film trying to get out of – and flies solo. And though we can appreciate this new icy surrounding reinvigorating her interest in creativity – an all-too coincidental meeting with a scientist (Troian Bellisario) who tells of a South Pole research station that’s to be redesigned ignites a long-brewing passion within – this narrative shift comes a little too late, bathed with too little investment, for it to be truly effective.
If Linklater had a stronger hold on the material and more adequately divided his time between her home life and her disappearance, the revelation of Bernadette rediscovering herself and Elgin’s realisation of his failures would resonate in a manner that would evoke a stronger audience reaction. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the film as is, but with such a complex and flawed lead character (played to perfection by Blanchett), as well as so many untapped support players – the office dynamic between Elgin and his seemingly-plotting assistant (Zoe Chao) is one that could have been worth exploring, not to mention the wealth of opportunities between Bernadette and Audrey – the posed question of Where’d You Go, Bernadette? isn’t one that we feel the need to answer, rather we’d listen to the response with middling enthusiasm.