It’s not that hard to figure out where Bernadette went. If you’re walking into Richard Linklater’s new film, Where’d You Go, Bernadette, expecting a Carmen Sandiego–style womanhunt, you might be disappointed. This is no globe-trotting mystery thriller, and Bernadette Fox (played by Cate Blanchett) would not make for a particularly elusive super-thief, despite her penchant for big sunglasses. No, there’s only one puzzle to be solved in Linklater’s adaptation of Maria Semple’s best-selling 2012 novel: What’s the matter with Bernadette? The answers are manifold, and the process of learning them is fitfully fascinating, even as the characters around this enigmatic woman suffer in her shadow.
Linklater, a pioneer of American indie cinema in the ’90s, has recently drifted toward the mainstream, using the clout he’s earned making classics such as Boyhood and the Before trilogy to produce the kind of mid-budget dramedies Hollywood tends to ignore these days. Sometimes, as with the winsome School of Rock and Everybody Wants Some!!, he hits the target. But his previous effort, 2017’s Last Flag Flying, was a dull affair, with an amazing ensemble wasted on a torpid narrative. Bernadette is somewhere in the middle. The cast is stacked, but the story is messy, and the pathos driving Bernadette’s disappearance (which, again, is easily solved) is underwritten.
Still, I can’t quite shake Where’d You Go, Bernadette, in part because Blanchett is her magnetic self throughout, and in part because Linklater’s own interest in the story is palpable. He’s often been drawn to tales about charming but inscrutable weirdos, such as Orson Welles and Jack Black’s title character in Bernie. Bernadette fits right into this tradition, an acknowledged architectural genius who abruptly retired from professional life to raise a daughter, Bee (Emma Nelson), while her husband, Elgin (Billy Crudup), became a Seattle tech superstar. The core conflict in the film is that of creativity being stymied; Linklater is contemplating how one artistic crisis of confidence can bloom into total ennui.
He struggles with the exposition, though. The script (written by Linklater, Holly Gent, and Vincent Palmo Jr.) relegates Bernadette’s history as an architect, the reasons for her early retirement, and the evolving legacy of her work to the background of the story. More than once, a character sits down to watch a YouTube video that lays things out more clearly; I’m not opposed to films within films, but it’s an uninvolved way to accomplish an info dump. Many more scenes follow Bernadette as she storms around her ramshackle mansion, dictating emails over the phone to a personal assistant who lives in India. Although Blanchett nails these fanciful monologues as only she can, it’s tedious stuff. Other small dramas, such as her tension with a snotty neighbor (Kristen Wiig) and her relationship with her distant husband, are equally uninspired.
Linklater is slowly piling on plot points so that Bernadette’s eventual departure can’t be traced to just one factor—emphasizing the mystery, such as it is, of what causes her to abandon her family. But there’s just not enough frisson to that question to drive the movie forward. The epistolary format of Semple’s book (piecing together emails, diary entries, memos, and the like) is better suited to unraveling the circumstances of her disappearance. In the film, Blanchett is such a dominant figure that all of the audience’s sympathies immediately lie with her, to the extent that Bernadette’s flight into the unknown seems like her only sane option.
Once Blanchett is offscreen, the ensemble cast finally gets a chance to shine. Crudup shifts from giving a rote performance to channeling the kind of hangdog empathy that’s powered some of his recent great performances (such as in 20th Century Women and Jackie). Nelson, an unknown making her feature debut, becomes the de facto lead for the final third of the film. She shoulders the burden wonderfully, playing a teenager who balances high spirits as fizzy as her mother’s with a little more rationality.
The best scenes of all, though, are pure dialogue; Linklater remains the master of stoned banter and philosophical repartee. One scene in particular, in which Bernadette meets with an old mentor (Laurence Fishburne) and they dig into her angst, is a thrill to watch: Linklater is laying his thesis on the table, talking about the pain of having one’s artistry doused and restrained. In moments like these, Where’d You Go, Bernadette feels like it could have been a great film; the final result is not that, but it’s at least a distinctive mess.