August 16, 2019

Ryan Bordow

‘Where’d You Go, Bernadette’ is fun to watch

The director plays a lot of roles on a film set. It’s their job to translate script to screen, which can manifest in a variety of ways: working in conjunction with the cinematographer, envisioning the blueprint for a movie’s production design, creating additional meaning through visual composition, and more. One directorly role that’s often overlooked, though, is work with actors to fine-tune performances. Richard Linklater—director and co-writer of Where’d You Go, Bernadette—is very much an actor’s director.

All of the above descriptions creep dangerously close to auteur theory, but in reality, directors are collaborators constrained by context. Sometimes they’re just hired hands in charge of maintaining the Disney status quo. Still, as a general rule: the further from the studio system, the freer the director; and Linklater has always preferred to work in the periphery of the Hollywood machine. This allows him to utilize his actors in inventive ways, such as allowing the stars of The Before Trilogy to co-write Sunset and Midnight, or working with the same cast over a twelve-year period. But even with this artistic freedom, limiting factors can still crowd the field. Bernadette is one such casualty of context.

The movie, which is based on a novel of the same name, centers on an agoraphobic architect named—wait for it—Bernadette. She is very much not in the prime of her life, for which she compensates by isolating herself, developing an expertise in passive aggression, and hiding behind mountains of word salad. The pairing of actor’s director Richard Linklater and acting goddess Cate Blanchett proves to be a marvelous one here. Blanchett is resplendent as Bernadette, gliding from monologue to monologue like each one is the last in her oeuvre. Much of Blanchett’s career is marked by a careful restraint, one that spills forth during selective moments of sincerity—but in Where’d You Go, Bernadette, she spills forth from beginning to end. Her performance is a ceaseless stream of loquacious delight.

Linklater’s work with the rest of cast is commendable as well: newcomer Emma Nelson shines with congeniality as Bernadette’s daughter, and Billy Crudup and Kristen Wiig turn in performances that are reliably “them”. But it becomes hard to recommend the movie beyond its performances. I can’t comment on the book’s pacing because I haven’t read it, but the cinematic Bernadette is certainly in a hurry to get to wherever she’s going. The first act is methodically developed, but the second act speeds by in half an hour, and the third act feels like five minutes. The movie adopts a myriad of character conflicts from the novel, but they’re all solved within an instant. The conclusion is the drama equivalent of a jump scare—an easy shortcut to the desired effect. Then the credits roll.

The wit and humanism that define Linklater’s writing keep the movie afloat before it crashes into an iceberg. Where’d You Go, Bernadette is fun to watch and its characters are easy to invest in, but that makes it all the more disappointing when their stories are choked up in a hasty bow. Blanchett conveys Bernadette’s mental illnesses so well that it’s hard to believe in the ostensible miracle cure of a heartwarming ending. Linklater’s work as an actor’s director pays off in spades, but due to the unknowable constraints of production and adaptation, his other roles have left more than a few holes.

★★½   (2.5/5)