A new Richard Linklater comedy starring Cate Blanchett as an agoraphobic misanthrope architect who runs away to the Arctic to attempt reconnecting with her own creativity sounds like a fantasy. While the end result definitely isn’t a nightmare, it is reminiscent of a listless and languid dream, one that you forget a few moments after you wake up.
Originally scheduled for release in May 2018, Linklater’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette suffered continuous pushbacks. Now, almost a year and a half later, the wait is finally over for fans of Maria Semple’s phenomenal novel, such as myself. Her source material is innovative and impressively clever, told mostly through archival materials such as e-mails, letters, government documents, etc. This unconventional storytelling format ensures that each character has their own voice and perspective. The key players are Bernadette’s disengaged tech guru husband Elgie (Billy Crudup), their priggish neighbor Audrey (Kristen Wiig), and their bright 15-year-old daughter Bee (newcomer Emma Nelson). Their narrative interludes also form the heart of the novel. Obviously, these characters must be simplified for the screen, as it’s impossible to articulate their innermost thoughts without (often clunky) narration. Richard Linklater’s adaptation, however, more or less jettisons them in favor of the titular role: Bernadette Fox, played by none other than Blanchett. This was a mistake.
For one, the whole intrigue of the novel is premised on the fact that Bernadette is missing. As we are so often placed in the perspectives of the periphery characters in the novel, it is thrilling to unravel the enigma of her eccentric mind and her anonymous location. In the film, however, Bernadette is in almost every scene. We know where she is at all times, which completely squashes any potential suspense.
Throughout the film’s entire runtime, I found myself unable to stop thinking about the woefully underrated Parker Posey. A passage from her (admittedly not great) 2018 memoir, You’re On An Airplane, came to mind. Posey had worked with Linklater in the past on Dazed and Confused (1993), and she’d remained in touch with him over the years. During the New York premiere of Linklater’s film Everybody Wants Some!! (2016), Posey ran into Semple at the after-party. “I told her I loved the script, and how rare it was to read something where the characters feel like you and your friends,” Posey wrote. “She was super nice and said I was on the list of actresses to play the nemesis of Bernadette. I was more right for the lead, I told her, but knew how the system worked.”
From a capitalistic marketing standpoint, this choice makes sense – Blanchett is an undoubtedly talented household name with two Academy Awards and loads of star power under her belt. Her revelatory performance in Manifesto (2015), a one-woman feature in which she played 13 different characters, demonstrated her versatility, and there are very few roles she can’t pull off. Unfortunately, the manic Bernadette is one of them. A dignified air hovers around Blanchett, and she seems to restrain herself from going full camp instead of embracing it. Her delivery rarely lands, and the blame can’t really be placed on the source material since the book is genuinely funny (Semple has written for Arrested Development, Mad About You, Ellen, among other sitcoms). Posey, on the other hand, has a clear knack for camp – I stand by my opinion that her antagonistic role as deeply insecure fashionista executive Fiona in Josie and the Pussycats (2001) is one of the greatest comedic performances of all time. Last year in Portland, a bar hosted a Parker Posey-themed drag show. You don’t receive that honor if you don’t exude camp.
In addition to Bernadette’s madcap misadventures, however, a good chunk of the story grapples with a more serious issue: her declining mental health. With a character this rooted in neuroses, it’s crucial to allow the camera to linger on their actions when they’re not speaking. So much can be communicated with the right twitch of an eye or hint of a smile. Linklater knows this – remember that Before Sunrise (1995) scene of Jesse and Celine stealing glances from each other in the record store listening booth? – so it’s even more disappointing that he didn’t bring this essential tenderness to the table. So much of mental illness is incommunicable, lurking in the gaps between words and the gnawing of fingernails. Instead, the film is bogged down by a frustrating dependency on telling instead of showing.
Fortunately, in the end, Where’d You Go, Bernadette is saved by its unique and vital message that not many other studio-backed movies deliver. Instead of writing women creatives off as “crazy”, maybe try… listening to and understanding them? Was Kubrick hauled off to a mental hospital for being “difficult”? Was Hitchcock? Was Herzog? No! Their erratic, and arguably abusive behavior was considered a regrettable side effect of their abundant genius. Women artists are rarely afforded the benefit of the doubt. It’s a shame that this glistening theme is obscured amidst the lackluster fog of a tepid adventure.