Where’d You Go, Bernadette?
Stars: Cate Blanchett, Kristen Wiig, Judy Greer, Billy Crudup
Writers: Richard Linklater, Holly Gent, Vince Palmo, based on Maria Semple’s novel
Director: Richard Linklater
It’s billed as a comedy, but the jokes in Richard Linklater’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette are few and far between. In fact, the film is mostly funny in the ways life is funny — the way our meticulously planned decisions go haywire, the way our oddest quirks become our most endearing qualities, the way wildly misfired trajectories can land us precisely where we need to be.
Linklater (Boyhood, Before Sunrise, Dazed and Confused), a meticulous observer of life, seldom bases his work on other people’s ideas. But he’s found a perfect vehicle for his profoundly humane sensibilities in Maria Semple’s best-selling novel, about an ingenious architect named Bernadette (Cate Blanchett) who walked away from her skyrocketing career in a fit of pique and a wave of agoraphobia. Now she lives in a majestic — if crumbling — former girl’s school with her adoring, if somewhat distracted, husband (Billy Crudup) and her best-pal daughter (newcomer Emma Nelson, whose voiceover provides the films narration).
Bernadette has everything she’s asked for, but very little of what she needs. She aches to exercise her creative muscles, but shrinks from the thought of returning to the spotlight. Rejecting traditional counseling, she turns to her old colleagues for solace and advice (Laurence Fishburne makes a welcome appearance as a warm and insightful friend). For Bernadette, there’s some therapeutic value in infuriating her next-door neighbor (Kristin Wiig, ringing her special brand of exasperated hilarity to the role), but even that satisfyingly antagonistic relationship takes one of those funny turns that neither party could ever see coming.
The significance of the film’s title doesn’t become evident until well into the second half, when Bernadette abruptly disappears — and flees to Antarctica, literally the last place on Earth she ever wanted to go. For the film it’s an abrupt shift: Until now we’ve been largely confined, with Bernadette, in the comfy if cluttered confines of her home. Suddenly facing the icy vastness of Antarctica, Bernadette begins to see her future spreading into the open, as well.
Fans of the novel may take umbrage at the considerable narrative streamlining Linklater and his co-writers have applied to the film’s third act, but the changes make for a thrilling and satisfying resolution.
The cast is uniformly perfect — especially, of course, Blanchett, her Australian accent nowhere to be heard, her character’s eyes darting about in a perpetual search for relief from the demons that torment her from within. Nelson, like so many young actors cast by Linklater over the years, is a real find — genuine and unaffected, just the type of kid in whom a troubled mother would find peace.