Review: Where’d You Go, Bernadette (2019)

Richard Linklater’s latest work follows Bernadette Fox, a neurotic architect pushed to the breaking point when her daughter Bee suggests they go on a family trip to Antarctica over winter break. She spars with a nosy neighbor and hoards pills while ranting about her anxieties to an unseen personal assistant over email. All attempts to help form her husband Elgin are soundly ignored.

Everything about Where’d You Go, Bernadette suggests this should be a quirky experience. Antarctic trips, a bizarre estate, snobby rival parents, and a singular lead are all the right ingredients, yet every artistic choice seems designed to reduce these elements to the slightly mundane. Bernadette borders on lifeless, squandering its eccentricities while likewise failing to settle on a clear message – all of which is amplified when the film attempts to throw in some shocking turns that really don’t go anywhere.

Cate Blanchett is the one high note of this film as Bernadette; she fully embodies this character with a wonderful display of introversion and sometimes raving hysteria. She has a commanding presence that dominates the screen – which would be more compelling if the other actors didn’t appear to merely fold over while in her presence. Billy Crudup feels especially underwhelming as Elgin, his eyes darting around like an embarrassed teenager during at least one key conflict. Several of his lines feel rushed or wooden, and I wonder how many takes they shot to settle on what ended up in the final product. Kristen Wiig and Zoe Chao are cast as stereotypical gossip moms, a cliche that offers little room for nuance in their performances. It’s difficult to take the larger-than-life Bernadette seriously when everyone that surrounds her feels so underdeveloped. Who wouldn’t turn into a neurotic mess while surrounded by these bland cutouts?

The dip in quality anytime other characters are alone on screen is palpable. What I’m imagining were intended to be heartfelt moments between father and daughter as they search for a missing mother instead carry all the weight of an after school special. Their poor acting is paired with a nauseatingly saccharine score, the type of light music you could imagine a church pianist chiming in with during opening prayer to signal that something important is being said.

What doesn’t help these late discussions is that the film juxtaposes their search with scenes of Bernadette doing just fine on her own. It’s difficult to care about Elgin and Bee’s panic when we know they have no need. This ending is especially difficult because the opposite also wouldn’t have worked – the film is too centered around Bernadette that it couldn’t simply cut her presence out for the final act.

Even the visual elements feel unbalanced. Shots of nature and the house lend an air of gravity, yet the actual scenes between characters have such basic presentation. With the aforementioned score, the film teeters dangerously close to feeling like a soap opera – made worse when combined with the half-hearted attempts at quirk.

It’s honestly hard to understand how a movie with all these disparate elements falls so flat. The secondary actors aren’t incapable – they have plenty of better performances to prove otherwise. Director Richard Linklater has made three films that feature regularly in my all-time top 100, so it seems similarly unlikely that the blame falls squarely on his shoulders. His best works have a meditative quality, so it makes sense that he would have connected with the deeply troubled Bernadette. Yet he stumbles anytime he has to get out of that character’s head, which is particularly surprising considering his best work consists of finding meaning in the smallest of moments.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette is an unsure, tonal mess buoyed by a strong Cate Blanchett. It’s the type of work that feels just off in nearly every category. It can be fun in its moments, but any grander purpose is muted by odd choices, some of which are so questionable I legitimately had to stifle laughter near the climax due to how poorly it managed emotional weight.

2 Stars Out of 5

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