“Nobody knows anybody. Not that well,” is a repeated cynical utterance in the Coen Brothers’ 1990 classic Miller’s Crossing. It’s also a line that applies to the far more upbeat Where’d You Go, Bernadette. The film’s plotting is kind of a mess as it meanders around, but once you accept Richard Linklater’s latest as a character study of a woman who feels stunted by her home life, the picture starts to work a bit better. Unfortunately, Bernadette still has to churn through plot beats that are limp at best and convoluted at worst, but at least the core of the movie—who Bernadette is, what she’s been through, and what she wants—connect thanks to Cate Blanchett’s performance and Linklater’s empathy for the character. Where’d You Go, Bernadette is at its most rewarding when it shows that it’s a fool’s errand to think you have someone figured when it’s so hard to know ourselves.
Bernadette Fox (Blanchett) was an acclaimed architect who decided to go live in Seattle with her tech genius husband Elgie (Billy Crudup), and while she doesn’t really seem to get along with anyone outside her family, she loves her husband and is devoted to her spirited daughter Bee (Emma Nelson). When Bee decides that the family should visit Antarctica, Bernadette and Elgie reluctantly agree, but the decision soon sends the anti-social Bernadette spiraling, which is made worse by her overbearing neighbor Audrey (Kristen Wiig). Feeling both isolated and trapped, Bernadette struggles to reclaim her individuality without losing her family.
I love some of the ideas presented in Where’d You Go, Bernadette. It’s a story where you can see that Linklater really connects to his protagonist because she’s stuck in a situation where she no longer creates, and that becomes a kind of living death for a creative person. Linklater is one of our more creative filmmakers who always tries to push himself and find different stories to tell. Although Bernadette’s backstory is told inelegantly (we basically get all of it from a documentary on YouTube or through exposition), it at least makes clear that the reason Bernadette lives in a dilapidated house is that it reflects her inner turmoil. She made the decision to devote herself to her family, but that choice came with a serious cost to her individual creative fulfillment. The vines literally coming out through the floor and the water coming in from the ceiling represent both how Bernadette has creatively gone to seed and her need to break out from the confines of her mundane existence.
However, Linklater withholds any information about Bernadette’s backstory for a solid thirty minutes, so you’re left wondering why we should care about Bernadette or what kind of conflict she’s facing. The first act leads us to believe that Bernadette is just a tough customer. She’s prickly, anti-social, introverted, and doesn’t seem to really care about anyone other than her husband and daughter. You can see why she’s the bane of the extroverted, rule-oriented Aubrey, but it’s not until Linklater starts peeling back the layers of his characters’ lives that you really start to understand them. Granted, this usually comes in the form of people just telling you who they are, which is clumsy and clunky storytelling, but at least it coheres into an interesting subtext.
The big problem with the film is how haphazardly it feels cobbled together. The movie is adapted from Maria Semple’s novel, which is told through the form of documents cobbled together by Bee. That’s tough to adapt, and so Linklater just streamlines Bernadette’s story chronologically rather than making it a mystery of what happened to her. Unfortunately, the tradeoff is that the film still doesn’t really cohere into a gripping narrative. What works here are the characters while the narrative twists and turns feel like jarring moments that don’t make a lot of sense beyond needing to propel Bernadette in a new direction.
I like the idea of Where’d You Go, Bernadette more than I like the actual film. I like a story that explores the secrets we keep from each other and how our inability to acknowledge what’s making us unhappy only makes us unhappier. The melancholy core of the movie contrasts nicely with Linklater’s upbeat tone, and the cast is terrific. But the pacing of the storytelling feels timid and afraid to match its protagonist’s aggressive personality. The irony of Where’d You Go, Bernadette is that it’s a movie about how people don’t know each other well enough, and in the end, it seems like Linklater didn’t quite know his protagonist well enough to tell her story effectively.