Richard Linklater’s haphazard film catalog – the Before trilogy, Dazed & Confused (1993), Boyhood (2014) – has an appropriate entry with his latest film, Where’d You Go, Bernadette? An uneven script, poor characterization and random pacing in key scenes sadly made this film nearly unwatchable.
Cate Blanchett does her best with Bernadette, a misanthropic and antisocial and Guggenheim fellow architect. But sadly, not even her acting chops save this film. Bernadette has many conflicts and none resolve in a way consistent with the story. There’s the opening conflict with the next-door neighbor only to have it devolve into a smarmy “we’re friends now” conversation. Bernadette relies on a virtual personal assistant in India. There’s a serious threat from the virtual assistant that sloppily resolved thanks to an awkward deus ex machina. Bernadette is obnoxious to everyone except her daughter. She is allegedly creative and designed beautiful homes on the cutting edge of architecture yet is now content to live in a falling-down house with a leaky roof. I saw nothing in the film that made me believe that Bernadette was creative, cared about design or her living space. Bernadette does not grow or change from the conflicts in the story and she takes no active part in solving those problems. When asked directly about these situations, she quite literally climbs out a window and runs away.
Billy Crudup plays Bernadette’s husband, Elgie, an overworked and bored tech wunderkind. He’s cold and wooden when on-screen with Blanchett. He’s warmer to his administrative assistant and other characters that exist tangentially to the story than he is to his wife. He attempts to help Bernadette and his efforts highlight that he has no idea who his wife is. Crudup has a measure of warmth and respect with his on-screen daughter, Bee (Emma Nelson). When Bernadette pulls her runner, Bee convinces her father to go to the ends of the earth together and find her.
The star turn in this film is Kristen Wiig’s Audrey, Bernadette’s next-door neighbor. Wiig is known for straight comedy (Bridesmaids) and after seeing her in this film, I want to see her in meatier, complex roles. On the surface, Audrey is that mom, Type A, president of the parents’ booster club at school, perhaps a bit of a helicopter parent and looking to recruit her next victim, er, volunteer. She’s blissfully ignorant that her son vapes pot constantly and maintains a cheerful disposition, a velvet glove over an iron fist unless pushed too far. Wiig steeps Audrey with just enough over-enthusiasm for parental involvement at school that the viewer is in on the joke. A conversation with Bernadette goes awry and, in a flash, Wiig shows Audrey’s fall from grace to someone we can relate to. And she does it while conveying Audrey’s innate kindness and sense of community.
I saw one preview for this film and have not read the book it’s based on. Perhaps my opinion would differ if I had read the book. Perhaps if I had, I would have liked the film, as several girlfriends suggest. That’s cheating, in my opinion. Films and books are different ways of telling stories. And a viewer should not have to read the book in order to enjoy the movie.