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'Where'd You Go, Bernadette' has the right ingredients (and Cate Blanchett) but still falls flat

Maria Semple's excellent story seemed like a winner on paper. Too bad not even Blanchett could build it into something great on the big screen.
Cate Blanchett stars as Bernadette Fox in Richard Linklater's "Where'd You Go, Bernadette," an Annapurna Pictures release.
Cate Blanchett stars as Bernadette Fox in Richard Linklater's "Where'd You Go, Bernadette," an Annapurna Pictures release.Wilson Webb / Annapurna Pictures

The great realignment in the entertainment industry has left a gaping hole in theater releases. Between Hollywood’s big-budget events and streaming indie hits we find more and more failed blockbusters like “Dark Phoenix” and Oscar-bait wannabes like “Where’d You Go Bernadette.” The latter lands in theaters this weekend, a fascinating exercise in how a film can have all the right ingredients and still collapse.

The story of “Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” at least in the novel, is not a heartwarming mother-daughter adventure flick. Nor is this really a women’s empowerment film.

Based on the very buzzy comedic novel of the same name, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” took the long way to theaters. The movie was filmed back in 2017, only to find its release pushed back three times. First it was a 2018 Mother’s Day film, which was pushed to the end of March 2019 as part of Women’s History month and finally delayed into the doldrums of August. None of this is a good sign. The story of “Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” at least in the novel, is not a heartwarming mother-daughter adventure flick. Nor is this really a women’s empowerment film. That production studio Annapurna Pictures mistook it for either along the way was proof that something had gone seriously wrong.

Not that “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” is an easy story to adapt for the big screen. Author Maria Semple uses a variety of devices to tell her updated version of an epistolary novel, including emails and recorded transcripts of interviews. She presents the narrative almost like an information dump and nothing happens in order. Instead, Bernadette’s 15-year-old daughter, Bee, the book’s ostensible narrator, comes across papers in rambling fashion as she attempts to solve the mystery of her mother’s disappearance in the days before a planned family trip to Antarctic.

In short, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” is a story about a character who disappears before the first page is read and does not turn up until the very end. She is seen in flashbacks only, as Bee (Emma Nelson) searches to understand the woman who gave up her career as an architect to raise her. Indeed, the book’s real hero is the daughter. Her workaholic, tech-billionaire father, Elgin, is no more a major figure than mom.

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Perhaps in the right hands Cate Blanchett (who plays the missing Bernadette) and Billy Crudup (who plays Elgin) could have made this all work, filling in absent characters in Bee’s teenage mind. But that’s not what director Richard Linklater did at all. Instead, not trusting the audience to follow the novel’s non-linear timeline, Linklater unwound all the mysteries, reordered everything in a straight line and strangest of all, never once lets Bernadette disappear.

Not trusting the audience to follow the novel’s non-linear timeline, Linklater unwound all the mysteries and strangest of all, never once lets Bernadette disappear.

On the one hand, you do not generally cast a movie legend like Blanchett and then only use her in the final few frames. It is understandable that Linklater wanted to give his star as much to do as possible. But by delaying her disappearance, the film loses its mystery. Instead, audiences spend the entire first hour watching Blanchett swan around being eccentric and irritating her neighbors, which gets old fast.

In films like these, it can sometimes be hard to know if the actors realize they’ve boarded a slowly sinking ship. Crudup, for one, looks dazed by the time the film reaches Antarctica. Blanchett, who seems to recognize early on the movie’s fatal storytelling flaw, is left to carry the film. That the first half is watchable is entirely on her and Nelson, who spends most of her time looking as if she’s stumbled into the greatest acting masterclass imaginable. (Only Kristen Wiig, who plays Bernadette’s neighbor-nemesis Audrey, throws herself into the film with gusto from start to finish.)`

The film does improve once it arrives in Antarctica, as Blanchett’s frenetic first half energy calms down. (Though the ice floes and penguins may have as much to do with that as anything else; It’s hard to expend that much energy in the cold.) The Antarctica portion is also when the film finally gets to its contextual point — that Bernadette is not a kook, for all the time the film spends making her seem like one. She’s just a genius in need of a project, and it turns out the South Pole is where she finds it.

Perhaps the problem was that Linklater, with his penchant for simple emotional films like “Boyhood” and the “Before” trilogy, was just the wrong man for the job. Perhaps a novel like this was too big a reach to translate in another medium. Whatever the case, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” looked like a winner on paper. Too bad not even Blanchett could build it into something great.