Where'd You Go, Bernadette: Richard Linklater's screwball comedy eventually shows its heart

By Karen Gordon


Cate Blanchett plays a woman-on-the-verge in director Richard Linklater’s latest, Where’d You Go, Bernadette, based on the best-selling epistolary novel by Maria Semple. 

Blanchett is Bernadette, always in motion, a self-proclaimed loner who overshares with her virtual assistant, Manjula. 

Gifted devoted daughter Bee (Emma Nelson and unravelling mom Bernadette (Cate Blanchett)

Gifted devoted daughter Bee (Emma Nelson and unravelling mom Bernadette (Cate Blanchett)

She’s the mom of Bee (Emma Nelson) and wife of Elgie (Billy Crudup). 

They are obnoxiously successful: Elgie is pretty much a genius in advanced computer science. Bernadette is a genius too, a once-influential Los Angeles-based architect and winner of a MacArthur Grant, whose projects drew international attention. But at her peak, she withdrew from the limelight and is no longer working professionally.  

Her latest project is their house, a gigantic school that she’s aiming to renovate.   Her other project is her teenage daughter Bee. She’s a confident, spirited high-achieving teen with a streak of her mom’s non-conformist nature.  Bee has asked that the family spend Christmas vacation in Antartica, because she’s been so inspired by a recent school project that she wants to see it for herself, and share the experience with them, and they’ve agreed.

Bernadette’s nonconformity shows itself in her relationships with the other moms in their tony enclave.  She distrusts them and goes out of her way to avoid them - in particular her direct neighbour, Audrey (Kristen Wiig), a single mom of a teenage son, and enthusiastic local organizer. Audrey is pretty much the standard movie trope of a high strung, controlling, perfectionist neighbour.  And the two of them, like natural enemies, constantly clash and judge each other unfavorably.  

 As the movie goes on though, Bernadette’s nonconformity, starts to look less like a deliberate choice and more like neurosis, first the good kind and then something more alarming. 

Elgie has taken note of his wife’s off-beatness, but it hasn’t really rattled their long-term relationship. That is, until a series of events, culminating with a visit from the FBI, and perhaps some manipulation from one of those disdained moms, rattles him, big time.

Elgie calls in Dr. Kurtz (Judy Greer), for perspective and then, an intervention.  At which point Bernadette “does a runner” and the search for her is on. 

Where’d You Go Bernadette, might be the most mainstream movie that director/co-writer Richard Linklater has ever done. 

For a long stretch, it feels like a pretty typical off-beat, or screwball comedy with conventionally drawn characters (and it’s certainly advertised that way). There’s an appealingly manic individualist as the lead character, who’s spinning for some reason we have yet to figure out; her plucky daughter and understanding husband, the bitchy ‘other moms,’ disapproving of Bernadette partly because of her refusal to fold neatly into the community, and a series of mishaps that fall out of those situations.

But Linklater is a different kind of filmmaker, and as the story evolves and turns it gets deeper and ultimately more human. 

Linklater is a director with a very light touch. And yet his films are always more than the sum of their parts.  Even his teen or college comedies, like Dazed and Confused, or Everybody Wants Some!!, are ultimately about community, about the desire to connect within ourselves and to others, in intimate relationships and the larger world. There’s a calm humanity at the center of his films, and that is true here as well. 

Cate Blanchett is a gifted and generous actor, who fully, and joyfully commits to her roles.  But sometimes, that can make her performances stand apart from the others and even be slightly and distractingly at odds the tone of the movie. She can sometimes be all sharp edges in a movie that wants something softer.  But here those tendencies work perfectly.

Bernadette is a manic blur of quirks that, at first, help give the movie the feeling that we’re simply watching an off-beat comedy about people trying to relate. 

But as the movie evolves, and as we get perspectives that start to define the issues here, she tames the quirks so we can see the human being at the center of the maelstrom. 

She’s well matched by Billy Crudup, who is also a fine and committed actor, but with almost opposite tendencies to Blanchett. He’s the legato to her staccato, and he matches her strength for strength. 

This may sound odd, but Crudup is one of the screen’s great listeners.  He’s fascinating to watch especially when his character is simply meant to be absorbing what’s going on in a scene.  In Bernadette, that trait is key.  Crudup’s strong and thoughtful performance provides the necessary emotional ballast.  Subtly, we see the big picture through the eyes of Elgie. 

The other member of the trio is newcomer Emma Nelson who makes an impressive debut, more than holding the screen against these two powerhouses. 

Where’d You Go Bernadette is, like its main character, a bit wonky.  But, then again, so is life.  

The family here is privileged: They have no material worries, and are, in many ways that hold a lot of us down, free. But what does that mean in the midst of living a life of value?

Linklater is exploring the ideas of what makes each of us who we are, to ourselves and in relation to others.  Every so often life calls us to face ourselves anew and so how do the choices that made sense at one point in life affect us in another?   

It’s not always a comfortable place to be, but with Linklater explores it here with humour, rather than pathos.  And once again, with his persistent humanism, he offers us a question  worth exploring. 

Where’d You Go Bernadette. Directed and co-written by Richard Linklater. Starring Cate Blanchett, Billy Crudup and Emma Nelson. In wide release now.