Where’d You Go, Bernadette is the newest film by director and co-writer Richard Linklater (Before Trilogy, Boyhood), from a script by him and co-writers Holly Gent and Vince Palmo. It stars Cate Blanchett as Bernadette Fox, a loving mother who has sacrificed years of her life for her family, and feels compelled to re-connect with her creative roots. After suddenly disappearing from her home one day, Bernadette sets out to re-discover her architectural spark once more, traveling across the globe and facing her fears in order to awaken her spirit and live without boundaries, the way she used to live. However, she does this unbeknownst to anyone, and with her family searching for her, she may not have much time to chase down that elusive spark, and re-capture it before it’s too late. Based on the runaway bestseller, and also starring Judy Greer, Kristen Wiig, Billy Crudup, Laurence Fishburne, Emma Nelson, and Steve Zahn, this film examines what it means to take a leap of faith and journey into the unknown, and what life requires for someone to re-discover their passions, and themselves, along the way. At least, that’s how the film was marketed. The actual film is (disappointingly so) something quite different.
There are no ifs, ands, or buts about it: Richard Linklater is a great filmmaker. Even when he’s not quite as big in the mainstream as his Before or Boyhood projects (though to call the former “mainstream” is a stretch), he can still put out little gems like Everybody Wants Some!!, which went largely ignored during the early months of 2016, despite high critical ratings and a fun, 80’set story the director considers to be his spiritual successor to the critical classic Dazed and Confused. But when this movie was pushed three months behind its original release date from May to August, I started to get a little bit concerned. I wasn’t terribly worried, per se, since August has been known to yield some gems before, but that month is also where more awards-season-esque hopefuls usually get buried by their studios so that they’ll be just forgotten enough by Oscar time that the studio has a better shot at landing a win with a different feature. In some cases, though, those August films have gone on to win Oscars of their own due to the recency of those releases, so it’s not entirely hopeless if you have something that’s genuinely good, but you don’t want it to have too much competition during the fall and winter months. But Linklater has been known to pull out minor gems before, like the one mentioned above, so it’s unfortunate that Where’d You Go, Bernadette, even past the issue of its severe mis-marketing, might actually be his most contrived and insufferable project yet.
Let’s get the likable stuff out of the way first so we have more time to explore what might’ve gone wrong during production or how the film fails to justify even the slightest of plot turns without having to constantly over-explain what’s happening to the audience via vague metaphors that you’ll only get if you also speak the language of “pretentious.” First off, the performances, as annoying as the dialogue is, are actually quite good, particularly from Blanchett, who can do no wrong as far as performance goes in my opinion. She is in full command of a thoroughly unlikable character whom the movie tries to justify by excusing her being an asshole to everyone as just a result of suppression of her creativity (a self-supported suppression, by the way), and she sells every second of it like the expert she is. Crudup and Greer are also quite good too, and while Greer’s performance might actually be the best in the whole movie, we don’t get to spend enough time with her character for it to matter beyond motivating Blanchett’s character to actually do something for the first time in the entire film. Crudup, though, while also putting out a solid performance for a script that absolutely hates his character, is basically given the thankless task of having to take the blame for something that’s not his responsibility, that being his wife’s unexplored mental illness, which the movie tries to pass off as him suppressing her because he works for Microsoft and isn’t around much. As well, the third act is actually quite interesting. Once we get to actually see Bernadette travel to faraway places and face her fears, exploring new lands she might not have otherwise found herself in, Blanchett (and by extension, the movie itself) is really allowed to let her performance shine, and if more of the movie were set in this area of the plot, it could have been something really pleasant and surprising.
Other than some solid performances and a decent (if only halfway explored) third act, though, Where’d You Go, Bernadette has no interest in making good on the promises of its marketing; the disappearance by the main character doesn’t even happen until the third act of the film, and the rest of the time, we’re forced to watch Bernadette simply be an asshole to just about everyone around her for no reason, only for the movie to make excuses for it to happen, and treat such a thoroughly unlikable person as someone the audience is meant to look up to…until they’re not…and then until they are again. This, of course, is accompanied by Emma Nelson’s character having to explain to the audience via contrived dialogue why Bernadette has never been in the wrong with each change in her character, and while she ably delivers the lines, the overt way the movie begs the audience to accept such a ridiculous notion borders on Tyrion Lannister’s Game of Thrones series finale monologue levels of insufferable.
Truth be told, I’m not sure that the movie really knew what it wanted to be; it seems that they began to shoot the adventure portion very early (likely due to how expensive it might be to film in that location for long periods of time), but then decided that what this movie really needed was a justification for why Bernadette would travel so far…except that would require a whole lot of backstory they hadn’t shot yet, and perhaps didn’t have a script for. It’s abundantly clear during the course of the film that the battle between a need to create and dealing with a mental illness that stifles that creativity was the movie Linklater wanted to make, but being bound to the source material, he was likely forced to include the third act’s original plot, and so the film feels like two different movies were shot, and only two thirds of the original cut survived the editing process.
The worst thing about this movie, though, is how it goes almost out of its way to say that mental illnesses or falling for [redacted] scams (two things it apparently thinks are on equal footing in terms of instability) are only the result of a creative person not being allowed to create by the people around them, and instead of getting medicated or talking to someone about what’s going on, the responsibility rests with those who took them out of the environments they best created in, even though the movie explains more than once that Blanchett’s character agreed to move to Seattle with her family without ever addressing how she felt about it to her own husband. Perhaps the whole thing looked a lot smoother and less jumbled on paper, and perhaps as a book it’s much better, but the fact remains that the constant need by the script to justify Bernadette’s behavior (without ever addressing why it’s not okay) by placing the blame not on her mental illness but on her husband’s inability to see her struggle (despite her never talking to anyone about it) is a harmful angle by which to tackle this story, and does a disservice to those with actual mental illnesses who still need to get help.
In the end, I’m not so sure I truly hated Where’d You Go, Bernadette as much as I hated how important it thinks it is despite sending a harmful message to its audience about mental illness and responsibility under the guise of snuffing creativity, but I don’t know if I would ever say the film was “good,” or even just “okay” either. There are some whispers in the script of what Linklater was likely setting out to do, but they’re drowned out by an insistence on making the main character as thoroughly unlikable as possible and then telling us we should look up to her example. Despite some solid performances, and a decent third act, this is one of the most disappointing movies of the year, and a far cry from what Richard Linklater’s talents usually afford.
I’m giving “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” a 5.6/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
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Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time. Writer for Bitesize Breakdown.