Where’d You Go, Bernadette (2019)

Directed by Richard Linklater

Screen Shot 2019-08-27 at 10.58.23 AM

Where’d You Go, Bernadette is a a remarkably sweet movie, one that I don’t think Bernadette Fox herself (Cate Blanchett) would enjoy watching.  It’s a movie that on the surface seems far removed from what you might think of when you imagine a Richard Linklater movie, be it the young cocksure athletes and slackers, the starry-eyed lovers on nighttime strolls, the fumbling declarations of adolescence or those same starry-eyed lovers learning to navigate and balance fantasy and responsibility as they broach middle age.

And yet Bernadette frames its characters, through their ups and downs, with a quiet sense of calm just as those films did.  It sees them from the outside and from the future, like his other films it is still imbued with a sense of serenity that only a wise old elder could impart.  He’s seen these storms, he’s battened those hatches, and he’s made those same great escapes, and now he’s here to tell you it’ll be alright in the end.

This is a story about a well-known but reclusive and depressed architect, Bernadette.  She loathes Seattle, her neighbor and just about anyone outside of her husband Elgie (Billy Crudup) and daughter Bee (Emma Nelson).  Alternatively fed up or heavily medicated, Elgie organizes an intervention which prompts Bernadette to run away and escape to Antarctica.  The trailer makes it seem like this might be an attempt to find her purpose, a la Walter Mitty, but it instead is just her only option, an effort to meet her family on a pre-planned vacation which they neglect to attend after her disappearance.

From what I understand the novel perpetuates the mystery of where Bernadette has gone, but that mystery is vaporized in the movie.  Even the trailers show us to where she disappeared, and that plot point in the film is neither the end of the first act nor the beginning of the third.  It is instead somewhere in the middle, late enough in the story that her departure is clearly not the point of the movie, rather a symptom of what’s already at play.

This is a story about a sort of midlife crisis and a couple characters rediscovering what it is that makes them tick.  It’s messy underneath the hood, but it is presented in very neat and orderly ways.  The world of Bernadette is clean and well-lit, like a Pottery Barn commercial.  The homes are grand, partially explained by her occupation but also by the studio production budget, the exposition is hurried, and characters sometimes speak with too much ‘movie’ quirk.

You can feel the push and pull between Linklater’s impulses and the studio mandates.  There’s a subplot in here about a virtual helper named Manjula and a terrorist group on an FBI watchlist, but it comes and goes so quickly that it is surely just a relic from the novel.

The moments that feel more authentic involve Bernadette and others letting loose at each other, expressing angst, anger and despair and reflecting on how they got to this point in life and in their relationship.  The best parts of the film allow characters to explore themselves and each other, like with so many great moments in other Linklater films.

The plot surrounding this is like a decomposing house inside which something else is blossoming.  There is real heart to this film, but it is standing in line behind awkward exposition (characters learning a lot by watching youtube) and ahead of rushed conclusions.

And yet it’s kind of nice, when you take a step back.  This is a type of studio film that resists certain plot expectations.  All those familiar moments (that make for a good trailer) might remain, but they don’t occur when you expect them.  It’s a slight remix on something that could’ve been straightforward and vapid.

The film tells you where it’s going to go, unlike the novel, and this time around it’s simply about how we get there and what we’ve learned (or re-learned) along the way.

Up Next: Pacific Heights (1990), Seconds (1966), Alex in Wonderland (1970)

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