Where'd You Go, Bernadette: AKA How Bernadette Got Her Groove Back
Richard Linklater returns with the bubblegum comedy Where’d You Go, Bernadette. The film marks Linklater’s fifth adaptation and his first collaboration with actress Cate Blanchett. Though it falls in the lower tier of Linklater’s body of work, it’s still the kind of singular effort you’d expect from a filmmaker of his caliber.
Based on the runaway bestseller, Where’d You Go, Bernadette is an inspiring comedy about Bernadette Fox (Academy Award winner Cate Blanchett), a loving mom who becomes compelled to reconnect with her creative passions after years of sacrificing herself for her family. Bernadette’s leap of faith takes her on an epic adventure that jump-starts her life and leads to her triumphant rediscovery.
One of things I love about Richard Linklater is how he defies easy categorization as a filmmaker. There’s a definite through line to his body of work, but for the most part, it seems to be in a constant state of evolution. From thought-provoking indies, like Slacker and Waking Life, to big-budget crowd-pleasers, like School of Rock and Bad News Bears, to quiet, easy-going three-part romantic epic The Before Trilogy and just about every shade in between, unlike most filmmakers, he’s not one to repeat himself.
Where’d you go, Bernadette? marks another turn for the nearly 60-year old filmmaker. At first blush, the film seems like an odd leap for Linklater to take, especially since Bernadette’s elite, well-to-do characters are the kind you don’t often find in his films (which tend to focus on the middle to lower middle-class). However, it’s not uncommon for him to venture outside his comfort zone — something which is evident by a quick scan of his IMDB page — and it’s an aspect that’s always made his films exciting.
In a body of work that’s mostly dominated by the male experience, Linklater is finally getting more in touch with his feminine side. He’s had well-written women in previous films, but Bernadette is the first film that is truly female driven. Its strong mother-daughter focus essentially makes it the flip side of Boyhood, Linklater’s quietly sprawling coming-of-age epic, so there’s an element of the familiar to it.
“Bernadette reminded so much of my own mom, who was a great woman, but kind of unstable, you could say, and she would leave us for days at a time and we wouldn’t know where she went,” Linklater said. “And I felt I’d made my mother-son story, with Boyhood, and I’ve got three daughters, and two sisters, and I’ve just kind of had a front-row seat to the mother-daughter thing my whole life, and so the material really engaged me on that level.”
It’s the personal element that gravitated Linklater to the story, and it’s the personal touches that elevate the story and make aspects of it radiate off the screen. Like most Linklater films, there’s a warmth to Bernadette and an undeniable charm, but his calculated and conventional direction seems a bit too sane to jive with the swirling madness of Bernadette’s world. His easy-going fluidity just can’t do the job of placing us firmly within Bernadette’s headspace, which is something that seems necessary for us to fully feel the weight of the story. The film certainly takes us for a ride though; we’re just more of a passenger, than an active participant. Considering how easily absorbing many of Linklater’s film can be, this definitely comes as a bit of a disappointment.
There’s just something about it that keeps the audience at a distance, which may be due in part to the film’s lack of mystery. The novel is told in a series of documents (emails, memos, transcripts, etc) with the occasional interlude by Bee, Bernadette’s daughter, which obviously makes the film into a bit of a filmic challenge. Linklater gives us a bit of that heavy exposition via technology — there’s YouTube video that teaches Bee the extravagance and heartbreak of her mother’s past (which she oddly has no idea about beforehand) and several scenes of Bernadette hilariously using “talk to text” to compose emails to her personal assistant in India, Manjula — but the majority of the film is fairly conventional and straightforward. After we get a hearty dose of exposition detailing Bernadette’s past, the mystery at the center of Bernadette’s disappearance largely dissipates.
The ride Bernadette takes you on is full of rough bumps and peculiar turns, but it gets by on the strength of its production and performers. Cate Blanchett really brings the eccentric and sharp-tongued Bernadette to life, and while her performance is certainly enjoyable, the wind is sucked out of her sails slightly because her work here feels like a retread of Blue Jasmine. The more memorable aspects of her performance stem from those moments when she’s allowed to be happy — the best example being a conversation between her and Laurence Fishburne over lunch — since her character spends a majority of her time in a deep-seated funk. Fishburne and Billy Crudup (who plays Bernadette’s husband, Elgin) are the ringers of the cast, but Blanchett and Emma Nelson (who plays Bee) give it its true pulse. However, it’s set designer Beauchamp Fontaine and production designer Bruce Curtis who are the film’s true stars. Their work is full of vibrant colors and chic architecture. They feel lived in and make the world of the film feel all the more real.
Bernadette is a clear step above Linklater’s previous effort, the somber Last Flag Flying, and while it’s by no means a bad film, it sits on the lower shelf of his overall filmography — for us, anyways. Its trajectory is a bit odd, and its final note plays a bit off key, but it has important things to say about modern motherhood and the importance of self-care. It’s a film for adults that treats complex issues with a shred of complexity, and that’s something — especially since so many films seem aimed at adults who want to comfortably retreat to the nostalgia of their youths.
Recommendation: Fans of the novel and Cate Blanchett may find something to love, but for Linklater fanatics it’s a bit disappointing. It’d make a great mother/daughter matinee, but it’ll probably bore the heck outta dad.
Rating: 3 happy dances outta 5.
What do you think? How did you feel about Linklater’s latest effort? We want to know. Share your thoughts and feelings in the comments section below, and as always, remember to viddy well!