This adaptation from the usually reliable Linklater is a surprising bore.
The mystery surrounding the titular Bernadette’s (Cate Blanchette) whereabouts is less prominent than what you may glean from the title and theatrical poster: the film reveals where Bernadette runs off to within the opening flash-forward of the film. When we finally get to that point in the story, those looking for her figure out where she is within a couple of minutes. Then again, Bernadette is only missing for the last 30 minutes of this 2-hour affair. This is because despite what the title may imply, Where’d You Go Bernadette is not particularly interested in the question of where, but more the puzzle of why. Where’d You Go Bernadette is more accurately a character drama than a mystery.
To that end, the title has a double meaning. Based on the novel of the same name by Maria Semple, the film zeroes in on Bernadette Fox, a once-world-renowned architect, as we learn via an exposition dump in the form of a documentary about Bernadette herself. She is the recipient of numerous prestigious awards, married to tech-genius Elgin Branch (who could perhaps stand to spend a bit more time with the family and also appears to have invented a modest form of telepathy?), mother to loving daughter Bee, owner of the most expensive home on the block, and is clearly enjoying a healthy bank account. We also soon find out that her move to Seattle was the result of a personal crushing defeat; she had four miscarriages before Bee and hasn’t done any true architecture work in close to 20 years. Bernadette is not the person she once was and her anti-social, highly neurotic and anxious tendencies define the fundamental drama at the film’s heart. The title isn’t just referring to her physical location, it’s also about what happened to the woman who Bernadette was decades ago and how she ended up in her current mental state.
Bernadette, at least on the surface, doesn’t feel out of place in director Richard Linklater’s expansive oeuvre of outcasts and characters defined by their stunted growth or trepidation of the future. The potential for a poignant, nuanced character study is present in the bones of this character and her story, and Linklater would usually seem like a natural choice for the job. It’s unfortunate then that the final product is so devoid of any of his typical idiosyncrasies. In fact, it’s devoid of anything particularly distinctive at all.
Where’d You Go Bernadette plays out like a slow crawl of the most agreeable motion picture you could attempt to conjure up. It’s a strange, bumpy attempt at a balance between Sundance-bait-indie-twee, broad melodrama, and a conventional mainstream-studio-fare dramedy. In case it’s not clear, it doesn’t exactly work. It’s a cluttered, confused film that never truly figures out how to dissect a character like Bernadette. Never exactly stirring and never exactly funny, the film seems content to just toe a line right in between, seeming satisfied to present scenes in the most nonspecific terms possible, like someone had a gun to the filmmakers’ heads and told them to make it; it doesn’t have to be good or feature anything even remotely memorable, they just have to follow the script.
Most of the supporting cast is sufficient in an attempt to inject some life into this absolute corpse of a movie, but no one is able to overpower just how stifling and lethargic the whole thing feels. Even Blanchette, as skillful an actress as she is, offers a performance that seems just as misjudged as most of the execution of the rest of the film, though that may not be a fault of her own. Between the film’s inability to truly dig into Bernadette’s fractured mental state and the overall enormously miscalculated approach to the material, Blanchette’s performance plays as regretfully artificial; an affected attempt at a kind of ostentatious, nervy exaggeration that becomes sorely grating. Her exasperated outbursts about her general annoyance and anxiety regarding the world around her just read hollow with the meticulous type of showy dialogue given to her character.
I was confounded throughout the entirety of Where’d You Go Bernadette by how little progress the film seemed to be making as it trudged through the runtime. Linklater is no stranger to films of minimal action, but it’s different here. Stepping back to look, the plot moves along just fine, but we’re not offered any worthwhile character to latch onto to make it feel worth it. The drama rings false and the resolution is unfulfilling when stuck with what ultimately are just vessels to carry the film to each consecutive plot beat; a story told with no verve and shot with the same flat lighting and lukewarm energy of a cheap Netflix Original. There’s enough structural integrity to keep it from registering as a total disaster, instead it’s mostly a forgettable drag, which may actually be even worse.
Trace Sauveur has been a regular critic at Ready Steady Cut since March 2019.