“Nobody knows anybody. Not that well,” is a cynical phrase often repeated in the Coen Brothers’ film Miller’s Crossing. It’s a line that also applies to the far more upbeat Where’d You Go, Bernadette. The film’s plotting is a bit all of over the place as it gently meanders from place to place, but once you accept Richard Linklater’s latest as a character study of a woman who feels stunted by her home life, the movie starts to work better. And while the film starts strong, its second half churns Bernadette through plot beats that often falter, but at the least the core of the movie — who Bernadette is, what she’s been through, and what she wants — connect thanks to Cate Blanchett’s very solid performance and Linklater’s empathy for the character herself. Where’d You Go, Bernadette is at its most rewarding when it shows that its’ 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.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette often doesn’t put too fine a point on something that should already be self-evident, but Linklater makes it clear that Bernadette chose to design her own purgatory rather than be cosigned to irrelevance. It seems these days, she’s an agoraphobic misanthrope who spends her time renovating the abandoned school her family uses as a house, terrorizing the other moms in her Seattle community, and dictating long email soliloquies to her unseen assistant. But it’s the loving bond that Bernadette shares with her empathic daughter, Bee, that is basically the only thing that keeps her tethered to humanity. So when the aforementioned Antarctica trip is pitched by Bee, she can’t help but say yes. And before long, antipsychotics, the FBI and Laurence Fishburne begin to get involved.
Time after time, Where’d You Go, Bernadette tries to frame its namesake like an unsolvable enigma and the slow-winding path it takes to Bernadette’s breakdown is meant to convince us that there’s more to her than meets the eye. And there is! For one moment at least, which is both revelatory and downright heartbreaking. But so much of this movie feels like cover fire to distract from the simple truth that Linklater sees Bernadette as little more than a constipated artist. “People like you must create,” a former mentor played by Laurence Fishburne tells her over a frantic lunch. “If you don’t create, you’ll be become a menace to society.” Linklater is one of our most creative filmmakers who’s always willing to push himself and find different stories to tell. Although Bernadette’s backstory is told inelegantly (it’s basically entirely told through a documentary on YouTube), it at least makes clear that the reason Bernadette lives in a dilapidated house is that it reflects her inner turmoil. Her choice to devote herself to her family and leave art behind is often seen in the house itself — the vines literally coming our through the floor and the water coming in from the ceiling, clearly representing both how Bernadette has creatively ran dry and her need to break out from the confines of her mundane existence.
Maybe the biggest problem with the film is how haphazardly it feels cobbled together. The movie is adapted from Maria Semple’s novel, which is told entirely from Bee and Elgie’s perspective and even more often through documents cobbled together by Bee. So that’s very tough to adapt, instead Linklater just streamlines Bernadette’s story chronologically rather than making it a mystery of what happened to her. Unfortunately, the tradeoff of that is that the film doesn’t really cohere into something gripping (at least the second half isn’t much). What works best here is the characters, while the narrative’s twists and turns often feel like jarring moments that don’t make a lot of sense beyond needing to propel Bernadette in a new direction. It’s no secret that Bernadette vanishes (or really escapes) at the halfway point of the movie, even if it’s a surprise how long it takes for the movie to get there. But Linklater’s beguiling take on Where’s You Go, Bernadette is so focused on her final destination that the plottiness of its final act dilutes the promising character we saw in the first half even further. The more engaging question becomes where is the Bernadette that disappeared to for the two decades before the move begins? It may not be much of a mystery, but where Bernadette went is far more believable and broadly real a story than where she ends up. It seems that’s a story that’s too complicated to tell here. Where’d You Go, Bernadette brings solid performances and a fairly interesting look at how poorly we understand each other, but it’s the dilapidated plotting that gets in the way of all of it.