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Richard Linklater is the sort of cinematic creator that you can never put into one particular box. At one moment he’s working on something experimental like Boyhood or Bernie, and the next he’s making more mainstream-friendly films like School of Rock. A singular talent, his artistic eye has the potential to go and has gone in a multitude of directions.
While this is definitely an asset to a director’s career, it can also be a liability - especially when it leads to the creation of a film like Where’d You Go, Bernadette. Falling more into the mainstream column of the Linklater filmography, this adaptation of Maria Semple’s best-selling dramedy novel feels more slight than sensational.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette focuses on the Fox family, which is comprised of Elgin (Billy Crudup), Bee (Emma Nelson), and of course Bernadette (Cate Blanchett). Living in the world of Seattle’s tech companies and ultra-modern educational academies, the clan is a bit of a point of interest within the circles that they swim.
This is thanks to Bernadette’s rather prickly nature when interacting with people she’s forced into trying to get along with. There’s something under the surface when it comes to her troubles, however, and that aspect is knocked loose once Bee proposes a family trip to Antarctica. A series of unintended consequences unfold, leading to our protagonist’s supposed disappearance, and her family’s quest to find her.
By the sound of the plot laid out above, Where’d You Go, Bernadette almost sounds like a quirky comedy that lands right in the Linklater wheelhouse. The reality is that it spends too much time focused on the quirks that the jokes, and everything else in the movie suffers as a result.
If it weren’t for the amazing cast in Where’d You Go, Bernadette, the film would be a total loss. Blanchett in particular weaves her usual brand of magic as the manic eponymous lead, moving between the comedic and the dramatic with great ease. It’s this that helps glue together Crudup and Nelson’s efforts as her family into one cohesive unit of effective acting talent.
Emma Nelson, whose turn as Bee has a potent dash of precociousness, makes a refreshing and impressive big screen debut in what could have been a stock performance in lesser hands. Unfortunately, Billy Crudup’s turn as the patriarch of the family, while solid, is relegated to some standard dramatic beats and a more secondary presence, despite having the occasional noteworthy scene.
This leads to a particularly thorny part of what makes Where’d You Go, Bernadette such a disappointment. There’s a lot of characters that steal some of the light from the main story that’s being told, and it leads to one hell of an ensemble being featured on the screen in underdeveloped parts. The likes of Judy Greer, Lawrence Fishburne, and Kristen Wiig are all wasted, as they have no more than a couple of scenes each to move things along, and then disappear from the movie wholesale.
At the heart of it all is a story that’s confused as to whether it wants to be a stirring human drama or a crazy, carefree comedy. Both of those sorts of messages can coexist in the same narrative ?— they just don't seem to in this instance. Once all the math is done, the cinematic journey attempted is a bland view into modern family life rather than the sweet, big hearted satire it aims to be. By the time you’re walking out of Where’d You Go, Bernadette, you may struggle to recall the exact narrative path taken by the film, as it seems to aimlessly plod through a well-acted, but still pointless “adventure.”
Where’d You Go, Bernadette isn’t an easy movie to decode, nor is it an easy package to sell, as its trailers play up the laughs more than they do the more serious, character-based drama. It’s a tonally confused product that feels like a messy August discard, hoping to latch onto an audience hungry for early awards season bait. Despite the best efforts of all involved, the charm of this story disappears almost as quickly as its lead does, never to truly return.