Cate Blanchett shines in Richard Linklater’s adaptation of a popular novel about a brilliant, difficult woman having trouble adjusting to domestic life.
One of the things you’ll notice about films that are directed by Richard Linklater is that the characters like to talk. They talk about themselves and their lives, but also about issues and ideas. Even his one “action” film, The Newton Boys, from way back in ’98, has more dialogue than the average movie about bank robbers. In case you were wondering, I like this about him. I like how he values thinking, intelligence, and self-awareness as context for his comedies and dramas, and I think it makes him stand out from the crowd in this respect.
His latest film is called Where’d You Go, Bernadette. It’s adapted by Linklater, with Holly Gent and Vincent Palmo, Jr., from a bestselling novel by Maria Semple. The title character, Bernadette Fox, is a genius architect who has retreated from the limelight after some setbacks in L.A., and is now living in Seattle with her husband Elgin, a top programming executive at Microsoft, and her daughter Bee. But her relentlessly driven personality, her apparent agoraphobia, along with a tendency to be a misanthrope, causes a lot of problems in the lives of people around her.
Bernadette, as you can tell, is a difficult person: brilliant, fiercely eccentric, and troubled in ways that are at first hard to understand. You’d need an extraordinary actress to play her, and fortunately, Linklater got Cate Blanchett to take the part. Blanchett has the ability to take a complex and contradictory character and lend it the fullness and conviction it needs to come off as believable—and in this case, even likeable. Despite her weird and sometimes hostile personality, we always like her, because Blanchett convinces us that there’s more to her underneath the thorny surface.
Another challenge is that the book is narrated by texts, and emails, and memos, along with the occasional intrusion of Bernadette’s 15-year-old daughter, Bee. Linklater has given more of a voice to Bee, here played by newcomer Emma Nelson, and provides backstory through the device of a fictional TV documentary portrait of Bernadette that gradually lets us into her history as an architect.
The husband, Elgin, is played by Billy Crudup. Elgin doesn’t understand what’s wrong with Bernadette, just that she’s going off the rails for some reason. His concern, and his actions in the film, are understandable, but it’s a credit to the script and direction that we don’t share in his sense of panic—Bernadette is established in our minds as a chaotic, yet essentially good person. The main reason this works is that her relationship with her daughter is so close. Bee is Bernadette’s biggest supporter. In fact, a good deal of the plot hinges on Bee’s persistent belief in her mother despite all evidence to the contrary. Early on, she asks her parents to take her to Antarctica as a birthday present, a choice also influenced by her academic studies. But even though Bernadette agrees, her agoraphobia makes it seem almost impossible to follow through on the promise. She’s already delegated most of her social duties to a personal assistant in India with whom she communicates by voice text. A journey of this magnitude seems too much to ask.
One of the film’s humorous elements is Bernadette’s ongoing feud with a busybody neighbor named Audrey, one of those people who tries to control everything appearing within her line of vision. This is a marvelous performance by Kristen Wiig, going beyond caricature and becoming, surprisingly, rather touching.
Linklater simulates the stressed-out psyche of his main character in his narrative style, which can seem almost manic. The film has occasional problems finding a tone, but I admire the fact that the director continues to seek out ways of stretching and exploring new themes. Where’d You Go, Bernadette shines a light on the dilemma faced by women of great energy and talent, whom society expects to focus on the roles of wife and mother, when their spirit demands so much more.