Where’d You Go, Bernadette, directed by Richard Linklater, is reminiscent of a film that was buried in the 1990s and recently unearthed. A shockingly rich family encounters problems after they have, it seems, completely ignored each other for years. The main character has a very real mental illness that is presented with no subtlety and instead is often played for laughs. In the end, she and her family, go through unrelatable problems. Of course, they don’t seek therapy for these issues, as communication is something they lack. People tell them “no” and they don’t listen because they have never heard “no” before. It isn’t confidence that propels them forward but a maddening mixture of money and arrogance. Nothing is learned. Nothing is gained. End credits. Where’d You Go, Bernadette is a tone-deaf mess that completely wastes the talent in front of and behind the camera.
The story centers on Bernadette Fox (Cate Blanchett), who is having a tough time living in her giant fixer-upper house in Seattle. Her tech genius husband, Elgie (Billy Crudup), is always gone on some business trip to help promote his technology that allows “brain-to-text” typing. She is very close to her middle schooler, Bee (Emma Branch), who is wise far beyond her years. Still, Bernadette feels no connection to those around her. She goes out of her way to not have to deal with people, using her seemingly limitless fortune to pay her way out of any social interaction. A check is sent to the PTA instead of having to volunteer her time. She sends e-mails that are part ”to-do list” and part journal entry to an online task management service. Bernadette isn’t fulfilled in her life as a homemaker, though. She has had insomnia for as long as she can remember. Her angry rants about how much she hates everyone and everything has become longer and more worrisome. Bernadette is clearly close to a breaking point and must find passion in life before it is too late…
From the very first frame, it is impossible to sympathize with any character. Their daughter, Bee, runs into the room proposing the whole family go to Antarctica on vacation in the near future. She claims she is studying the continent in school and that this trip will help her. The fact that her parents don’t immediately say “no” leads her to take it as a “yes.” There is no mention of cost or even itinerary. They simply just shrug and accept that they are now going to Antarctica with all the realism of a 1970s sitcom family being written into a family vacation ala “Well, guess The Bradys are going to the moon!” How can any audience connect with a family that treats the decision to go to Antarctica with all the weight of agreeing to order a pizza for dinner that night?
Throughout the rest of the film, the main characters get absolutely whatever they want because they are shamelessly wealthy. They would rather enter their payment information instead of taking the time to decide the best course of action. Want motion sickness medicine that could put a bear to sleep? Have someone order it for you! Want to defeat nature as it burrows its way into your house and neighborhood? Hire someone without thinking! If the last act showed that the entire film was a fever dream brought on by someone watching too much reality television centered around the rich, everything would have made sense. Instead, we get 130 minutes of awful people with sporadic moments of human activity interrupting the banal tedium.
If it weren’t for his name in the credits, it would have been impossible to imagine Richard Linklater making this movie. The director has made a career out of great movies that have been nothing short of entertaining and thought-provoking. This is the same man who has made a career out of presenting adolescence, marriage, and family with such delicate care in movies like School of Rock, Boyhood, and the Before trilogy. Sadly, this film could have been made by anyone. There is no sensitivity to be found here. Any moment of emotion seems dropped in to remind us that these characters aren’t total monsters. These blips feel more accidental or forced in a way that we have never seen in Linklater’s career. Maybe it was the source material of the original novel holding him back. Maybe it was studio involvement. Regardless, this is the lowest point in his otherwise impeccable discography.
It is hard to watch Where’d You Go, Bernadette and feel anything but a frustrating disappointment. This was an opportunity for Blanchett to play the lead in a major release film. It was a chance for Linklater to remind studios that he can do both independent films and big wide releases. Instead, we get a movie about characters whom we can only care about if we are able to forcibly stop seeing them as the monstrous by-product of wealth. In the end, audiences are left not caring where Bernadette goes as long as she stays there.