About 15 mins through Richard Linklater’s adaptation of Maria Semple’s popular novel “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” you instantly know you are in for one painful ride. Everything from the contrived narration, to the Lifetime Movie style aesthetics and sensibilities, to the lazy staging and writing makes you feel tragically sympathetic to Richard Linklater, who just 5 years ago at this time released the majestic and timeless “Boyhood”.
Linklater is an American maverick auteur, who like Gus Van Sant bounces between independent art-house films to more mainstream studio movies, in this film it feels more like a paycheck movie more than anything. Linklater has had one impressive filmography that includes many exceptional titles that are still celebrated today such as “Boyhood”, the “Before” trilogy, “Slacker”, “Dazed and Confused”, and “School of Rock”. His smaller and more obscure lower-budget passion projects indies like “Tape”, “Waking Life” , “Fast Food Nation” (Terribly underrated), and “Bernie” play very well on revisits. Now his new film “Where’d You Go Bernadatte” is perhaps his weakest and laziest film to date. I would even take his “Bad News Bears” remake over this.
Which is sad because there seems to be a good film hiding somewhere in “Where’d You Go, Bernatte”, but you can certainly sense that Linklater’s passion seems to be drained. Perhaps the film went through too many rewrites and revisions? Perhaps Linklater owed someone in the industry a favor for doing this film? Yet one thing is for sure it is missing that labor of love passion that is often found in Linklater’s work. Even his staging and compositions don’t feel right, its almost as if Linklater gave up on the project as he started the filming process, and basically is hoping for Cate Blanchett to be the glue that holds film together. Yet the film is an epic failure in everything is setting out to do.
The result here is a film that is overly saccharine and just flat out messy. Perhaps because the novel “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” is structured mainly around e-mails, letters, hospital bills, and other online memos, and that doesn’t translate too well on cinema. What we get instead are neurotic breakdowns from Cate Blanchett, Billy Crudup overacting in a way that he’s begging for an Oscar nomination, and a story and execution that is cloyingly sentimental with where its precious cuteness becomes eye-rolling and borderline self-parody.
On paper, the story for “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” sounds very engaging, co-written by Linklater the film about a creative woman that is an architect that becomes lethargic and driven into to depression by living in a new setting while being a mother, wife, and middle aged that gets inspired again by taking a much needed vacation that allows her to be inspired and to be loved and forgiven by her family. These types of stories certainly ring true, but the result runs so cutesy and with such didacticism that plays out like a lazy Lifetime Movie where you are left so bewildered how Linklater could be involved creatively with this project.
When the film is working, its in the moments of Linklater pulling off his character study nuances that have always been his strongest strengths. We see Bernadette feeling isolated from her inner-circle of suburban Seattle west coast liberal mothers, along with a heavy-handed metaphor of Bernadett’es home decaying from mold and water from the abundance of rain. Berndette is completely disconnected in Seattle, she feels no inspiration, and she hates the environment. Her only real friend seems to be her daughter Bee (Emma Nelson), who was born after her success of being an architect that was conceived after Bernadette endured a series of miscarriages. Bee always finds herself defending her mother from others, including by an adversary played by Kristen Wiig. Bernadette experiences emotional turmoil and severe isolation as her non-conformity seems to be distancing everyone away besides Bee. Bernadette’s husband Elgie (Billy Crudup) continues to hold huge success in the tech industry, as Bernadette winds down, and through misreading his wife Elgie seeks out a psychiatrist (Judy Greer) to discuss confining Bernadette against her will into a mental institution.
Linklater and female writer Maria Semple show how female emotions are often sexist as nobody wants to hear her speak for herself. She is accused of being overly hysteric as her husbands actions along with Greers is not. When she is allowed to defend herself, one can easily determine where the problem lies. It is commending that Linklater comprehends this from the novel, and right when the film becomes compelling and complex it derails into manipulative and sap as Bernadette runs off to Antarctica and Elgie must understand who Bernadette really is. It is manipulative to see Crudup’s character get off so easy in the story, a spouse who goes behind their loved ones back to institutionalized him, only for him to become sensitive and “empathetic” undermines the rawness the film has potential having. Sure the theme of family coming together is always virtuous and reconciles, but here it doesn’t feel earned, but rather rushed.
Once Bernadette arrives to Antarctica, the films manic first half calms down and it the film becomes flat and dull. Even the landscapes and shots of Antarctica come off unremarkable and pedestrian. The film’s themes and payoff begins to kick in, overall Bernadette was a misunderstood genius that need relocation for her creativity sit it. There is a very contrived moment of her calling back home and apologizing to Bee and Elgie only for them to walk in at the right moment as she is making the phone call, and this is the portions of the film that fall flat and ring false.
Cate Blanchett was the perfect role for this, her Academy Award winning performance in Woody Allen’s vastly superior “Blue Jasmine” is very comparable. However the performance and range seems like a few steps back for Blanchett, the rawness and passion seems to be gone, Perhaps because the script is a mess, and Linklater has made some poor directing decisions in this one. The screenplay certainly seems to be very faithful to the book, and often you hear people say “it was so much different than the book”, well here it appears to be too close tot he book, which asks a fascinating a question, does a film adaptation need to be identical to the book? Look what Kubrick always did with his film adaptations? Yet Linklater doesn’t even get too imaginative with camera work, compositions, or visual style with this one, and we are left missing the Linklater spirit.