Bernadette Fox (Cate Blanchett) can’t sleep. She can’t focus either. She once was an architect, an incredible one, some called her “genius,” but she gave that up 15 years ago. Now, with no outlet for her energy, it explodes out in a fury of mania. In emails to her assistant Manjula, in her interactions with the moms who hover like bats around her daughter’s private school, and in her continually unfinished Seattle mansion — half of it deteriorating in the constant rain, the other half of it magnificently designed and decorated.
Blanchette’s performance is the reason to see Where’d You Go, Bernadette, adapted from the novel by Maria Semple. Blanchette is a furious performer, 100 percent commitment every time, and she inhabits Bernadette with a believability far exceeding the quality of the screenplay. By contrast, Billy Crudup (playing husband Elgie) and Emma Nelson (playing teenage daughter Bee) deliver performances fitting of the movie.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette is a Russian nesting doll of a story. There is a relationship between the plot points but no interlocking connection. The first third of the movie follows Bernadette as an agoraphobic insomniac railing against Seattle, against her snooty next-door neighbor (Kristen Wiig, a perfect casting), and her high-powered husband who may or may not be sleeping with his new admin assistant. The middle third — the most coherent and well-made section of the film — involves the Russian mafia, identity theft, and the FBI. The final third takes place in Antarctica.
Underneath all that are the remnants of an inventive story and an acerbic soul. They are only shadows now, and Where’d You Go, Bernadette is a movie with all the rough parts buffed out and the sharp edges sanded down. There is no real enemy, no looming threat, no one who has genuinely wronged anyone else. They are just a bunch of happy people who are momentarily unhappy.
And the solutions offered are equally flaccid: Bernadette needs to create and work more, Elgie needs to work less and be a better father, and Bee needs to… Well, she’s 15, so who knows what she needs. She probably doesn’t either. What 15-year-old does?
But that blandness somehow empowers Blanchette’s performance. While director Richard Linklater — working with scriptwriters Holly Gent and Vincent Palmo — wants to reaffirm the sanctity of the American nuclear family, Blanchette’s Bernadette will have none of it. Only when the script demands her to act like a typical mother — family first! — does she begin to slip into the familiar. But even then Blanchett’s Bernadette burst forth in a flurry of words, proving she understands this character far more than anyone else making the movie.
Directed by Richard Linklater
Screenplay by Richard Linklater & Holly Gent & Vincent Palmo, Jr.
Based on the novel by Maria Semple
Produced by Megan Ellison, Nina Jacobson, Brad Simpson, Ginger Sledge
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Billy Crudup, Emma Nelson, Kristen Wiig, Judy Greer, Laurence Fishburne
Annapurna Pictures, Rated PG-13, Running time 130 minutes, Opens August 16, 2019