The prolific and versatile and consistently original writer-director Richard Linklater is one of my favorite filmmakers of the last half-century.
From “Slacker” (1990) to “Dazed and Confused” (1993), from “Waking Life” (2001) to “School of Rock” (2003), from “Boyhood” (2014) through “Last Flag Flying” (2017), if I haven’t loved a Linklater film, I’ve liked it quite a bit.
Cate Blanchett is unquestionably one of the great actors of our time. Through the years, I can’t imagine I’ve ever been underwhelmed by any film performance she’s ever delivered.
Filmed in a solid but straightforward style, populated by troubled characters who are aggressively off-putting, frustratingly passive and/or easily lampooned clichés, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” is one of the most disappointing movies of 2019.
The attempts at broad comedy are hit-and-miss at best. The social satire arrives late to the table, offering no new food for thought. Most of the putatively heart-tugging hugs-and-tears moments feel forced and unearned.
Have you ever lived next door to an unbearably difficult neighbor, or at least found yourself seated next to an insufferable complain-a-holic on a long flight?
“Where’d You Go, Bernadette?” is the movie version of that experience.
In a story adapted from the 2012 novel of the same name by Maria Semple, the great Blanchett plays the title character: one Bernadette Fox, a 40-something wife and mother who hates leaving the house, loathes the other moms at her daughter’s school and in fact despises people in general, because in Bernadette’s eyes they’re all stupid and awful and transparent and vain.
What’s the old saying? If you run into a jerk into the morning, you ran into a jerk. If you run into jerks all day — you’re the jerk.
As we learn through snippets of a documentary available on YouTube (complete with interviews of former colleagues of Bernadette’s played by Steve Zahn and Megan Mullally, among other familiar faces), Bernadette was once among the most promising architects in the world — but after a wealthy and quite horrible British TV producer purchased Bernadette’s first great house in order to tear it down and use the land for parking spaces, Bernadette had a meltdown, and hasn’t worked in nearly 20 years.
Now Bernadette spends her days stomping about the cavernous, rundown, ramshackle house that stands out in shocking contrast to the modern McMansions on the street in her posh neighborhood. (It looks like they’re the first family to occupy the place since the Munsters moved out.) She’s often harsh and short when talking with her long-suffering husband Elgin (Billy Crudup), a highly paid innovator at Microsoft who spends long days and nights working and who can blame him, and she’s even nastier when dealing with nosy neighbor Audrey (Kristen Wiig).
The only time Bernadette shows any real warmth and love is when she’s with her 15-year-old daughter Bee (Emma Nelson), who adores her mom as much as her mother adores her.
Even then, though, there’s something a little … off about the way Bernadette conducts herself. There’s no doubting her love for Bee, but it’s so ferocious, so consuming, so smothering, it might not be the healthiest thing for a girl who’s no longer a little girl.
Bernadette is mentally ill. That’s made clear in the depiction of the character, and when Elgin finally takes a stand and insists she get some help.
We feel for her. We feel for Elgin and for Bee, and for just about everyone who has to come into contact with Bernadette.
But as Blanchett strikes one high note after another, even when Bernadette goes missing and embarks on a quixotic quest and we should be feeling more empathy for her, her character remains incomplete and off-putting.
Not always, mind you; there are moments when we see the pain in Bernadette’s eyes, and understand (to some extent) why she has built such an unforgiving wall around herself. But to the very end, which includes a zany and extended and utterly unconvincing madcap romp that takes us from Seattle to the outskirts of the South Pole, it feels like the best thing for this family would be for Elgin and Bee to live on their own for a very long time, while Bernadette gets serious about getting the help she truly needs.