By Eleanor Ringel Cater
When a movie starring a two-time Oscar winner, directed by a multiple Oscar nominee and based on a best-seller opens in mid-August, well, something’s wrong.
And something is.
“Where’d You Go, Bernadette,’ directed by Richard Linklater and starring Cate Blanchett, was originally supposed to open last year, but somehow got batted around and has landed, instead, in the dump-‘em dog days of late summer. It’s not anywhere as bad as who ever made that decision apparently thinks it is, but it doesn’t exactly work, either, despite a powerhouse performance by Blanchett.
Actually, we know from the very first scene where Blanchett’s Bernadette has gone. She’s kayaking in Antarctica. It’s not quite as goofball eccentric as it sounds. Her precocious and loving teenage daughter Bee (Emma Nelson) has asked her parents to make good on a promise that, if she did well academically, they’d take her somewhere of her choosing.
Antarctica couldn’t be more different from drizzly hip Seattle where Bernadette’s husband, Elgin (Billy Crudup), holds down a big job at Microsoft and Bee goes to the same school as Jeff Bezo’s daughter-in-law.
Bernadette doesn’t exactly fit into such an exalted place. The family lives in a decrepit mansion – a former girls’ reformatory – that makes Grey Gardens look like something out of Architectural Digest. This causes considerable distress to her neighbor (Kristin Wiig, wonderful), a chirpy monster-mom spawned in the hellish maw of the PTA.
But it turns out there’s a reason Bernadette is a misfit.
A couple of decades earlier, she was one of the most promising architects in the country – the winner of a MacArthur Genius Grant. Now she’s a woman who, as the title indicates, has disappeared from her own life, barking orders to an unseen virtual assistant in India and fleeing contact with other human beings. As a former colleague (Laurence Fishburne, bringing authority to a plot-device role) spells it out to her (and us), “People like you must create. If you don’t, you become a menace to society.”
Or, at least, to well-heeled Seattle.
“Bernadette” beams Book Club fave from every frame, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. What is confounding is how a picture with this kind of credentials could end up such a disappointment. Maybe the book itself, which is made up of blogs, emails, newspaper clippings, etc., simply proved too resistant to adaptation.
Maybe Linklater is a bad match, though this is hard to believe given that he’s handled everything from “Before Sunrise” and “Boyhood” to “Dazed and Confused” and “School of Rock.”
There is good news, though, and it’s Blanchett’s fierce, multi-layered performance. Even as the movie seems to slide out from under her (and us), Blanchett won’t let go. She understands every aspect of Bernadette’s biting wit and overwhelming melancholy. She’s funny and frightening and altogether hypnotic.
By the end, we may not care where Bernadette has gone, but we know Blanchett has taken us for a hell of a ride.