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‘Where’d You Go, Bernadette’ Review: She’s Hiding From Herself


The human dark cloud churning violently over “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” doesn’t much fit in anywhere, including in this comedy of crisis. That’s more or less intentional, but it presents a challenge for the director Richard Linklater, whose easygoing filmmaking style and vibe can feel out of sync with the gathering storm.

Cate Blanchett plays our cloud, a lapsed architect living unhappily, and volubly so, in Seattle. You might think the city’s brooding skies would please Bernadette; certainly they offset her clothing’s moody palette, her dark regrettable bob and the sunglasses she hides behind, Garbo-like. She looks like a film star at a junket hunting for an exit or someone in witness protection. She’s in seclusion, in a way, though it takes a while for the obvious to surface: Bernadette is hiding from herself.

The story doesn’t so much commence as sidle in with modest, loosely staged and played scenes filled with minor calamities and seemingly unfreighted exchanges. There’s a family, a dog, some neighbors, a car in the drive, the usual. Except that everything is a touch skewed, including the family’s house, a magnificently leaky sprawl that, like Bernadette, is a demanding presence in its own right. Like her, too, it telegraphs a specific, casual privilege, the kind where just-so peeling walls are meant to create visual interest, expressing a sensibility instead of an undone domestic chore.

It’s generally pleasant hanging out with Bernadette. Her husband, Elgie (Billy Crudup), is similarly nice to look at. (He must be the handsomest genius at Microsoft.) He’s cool-uncool, at ease in the world yet removed from it. Linklater is good at quick introductions, and when you first see Elgie he’s leaning over his laptop in the kitchen, wearing a heart-rate monitor that Bernadette sharply plucks from the back as she swans by, like a high-school meanie snapping a bra. It happens fast — Elgie quickly stands up straight — and conveys something not yet identifiable about them.

Bernadette may be lovingly signaling Elgie to fix his posture or pay attention to the family; you could call her action mothering or policing, perhaps both. Whatever her motivation, the exact emotional coordinates of her relationship with Elgie remain unfocused. But the snap creates one of those tiny narrative signposts, the kind that make you note something seemingly minor — a sharp look, an outwardly random rebuke — and stash it away while you follow the story. It also works, just as Bernadette knew it would, because it pulls Elgie out of his head and back to the family, specifically their teenage daughter, Bee (Emma Nelson).

Bee wants to go on a family trip to Antarctica, a request that sets everything in motion. It’s a quirky ask that doesn’t fit Bee, a serious, otherwise bland girl whose only distinction is her love for her mother. But the trip gives the family and Linklater something to focus on because it unmoors Bernadette. A promisingly unlikable, supercilious woman — an all-too-rare cinematic protagonist — she spends most of her time doting on her daughter and fussing over a house that, with its incessant problems, including its metaphor-laden invasive and prickly blackberry bushes, has become her project, carapace and near-prison. Watching her rationalize a way out is amusing.

Amusing and sleepy pretty much describe this movie, which is based on a best-selling novel by Maria Semple. That’s the case even when Bernadette seems in control, bustling and purposefully striding while dictating to a virtual assistant in India, whom she calls Manjula. The virtual aide is one of the story’s belabored eccentricities, and it feels like a dodge. It underlines Bernadette’s alienation, which in turn obscures trauma that the movie never persuasively gets a bead on; Manjula also becomes fodder for some story busyness that takes time away from Bernadette/Blanchett. The performance doesn’t work, but Blanchett is impossible not to latch onto.

Semple employs different points of view and narrative forms in her novel, including emails, a report card and so forth. Linklater takes a streamlined, straightforward approach, splitting the storytelling among characters who include a neighbor (Kristen Wiig) and an Elgie associate (Zoe Chao), meddlers Bernadette openly loathes. Linklater’s visuals are similarly unfussy, direct; as always, he creates felt intimacy among people. A late interlude in the wilderness, though, shifts the movie into a poetic register, turning natural beauty into an aesthetic declaration with color, flowing camerawork and a piercing sense of the ineffable that suggests where his heart lies.

It takes a while to know where Bernadette’s own desires are, what turns her on — other than her child and house — and keeps her going when the sadness seeps in, as it does. Too bad the house is more engaging than the kid. That sounds cold, but Bernadette isn’t especially nice and is more interesting for it. The problem is that her self-dramatization, her big gestures and grandiosity, when wedded with Blanchett’s emphatic dominance are simply too big for what’s meant to be a diminished character. The story needs Bernadette to be vulnerable to work, but all you see is a force of nature (and culture) being held back by a family that anyone would want to escape.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette

Rated PG-13 for adult feelings. Running time: 1 hour 44 minutes.


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