A new Richard Linklater project? Sign me up!
I'm sure there's a bit of division amongst fans of the 'Dazed and Confused' director within the last couple of years. His last few projects since 2014's 'Boyhood' - which from what I gathered, still seems to have retained its fair share of divisiveness - haven't necessarily caught on with really any audiences...unless you're talking to someone like me.
Yeah, I'm the guy who thoroughly praises 2016's 'Everybody Wants Some!!!' as a masterfully fun college comedy, and who even got some enjoyment out of 2017's 'Last Flag Flying' (seriously, go back and watch that just for Steve Carell's performance, he's excellent).
But Richard Linklater has never shied away from delivering stories that play off of unique family dynamics arranged around complicated leads, which, with a few exceptions, I've always been interested by and give him a lot of credit for. To hear he was tackling a story like Maria Semple's 2012 novel - the story of a daughter concerned for her creative, complex mother, and giving one of Linklater's sole female leads to a performer like Cate Blanchett of all people - that at least had some of my interest locked in.
So, does 'Where'd You Go, Bernadette' find a rightful place in Richard Linklater's vast catalog?
Honestly, not really, and that's disappointing to say because it still has all the standard things I usually like about Linklater's films. I still think there's a pretty interesting character and family dynamic that I enjoyed seeing followed through, but structurally, this movie does not stick the landing and winds up feeling like it overstays its welcome despite those complexities. It's not bad per se but...well...let me explain the summary for a bit of glimpse:
Bernadette Fox (played by Cate Blanchett) is a former architect living in Seattle with her tech giant husband Elgie (played by Billy Crudup) and her daughter Bee (played by Emma Nelson). In years past, Bernadette was regarded as a pioneer in the architecture world for her daring and unique sense of design and work ethic. Nowadays, she spends the majority of her days wandering around a decrepit house and seemingly cut off from the rest of the neighborhood, and pretty much anyone for that matter, including some overly managing parents led by Audrey (played by Kristin Wiig) and Soo-Lin (played by Zoë Chao).
Now, that's the basic setup, but the trailers seem to set up a very different set of story points to follow. I don't consider them spoilers, but I'll try and be as vague as I can. As the trailers portray, and as Bee, herself narrates in the movie, Bee persuades her parents into going on a trip with her to Antarctica, which takes a toll of Bernadette's anxiety and antisocialism. Bernadette runs away from home, leading her family to go on a search to find their lost matriarch and hopefully help her through whatever creative hole she might be in.
That essentially leads to my initial thoughts about this movie which is that it doesn't really know what it wants to be for the first half of the movie. Most of those "key" story details the trailers to give you...they don't come up until far later in the runtime. It doesn't help that certain story beats feel like they should be reorganized, resulting in multiple instances where I found myself asking "where are you going with this?"
Linklater seems far more concerned with giving viewers a sense of linear story than allowing the story to flow cohesively and got on my nerves more than once. There's an argument you can make that Linklater is trying to explore the sort of managed chaos of Bernadette's life by making us follow her story through this type of structure, but wouldn't it have helped to utilize flashbacks, or even have Bernadette be the narrator so we could try and follow her arc more distinctly? It just winds up feeling remarkably scattershot, not necessarily to the point of feeling cluttered, but enough to be noticeable.
Granted, the second half of the film starts to improve things a little better, with Bernadette's character shown front and center in an often-unlikeable, but a remarkably complex way. Blanchett deserves a lot of credit for the vision of Bernadette we get, often giving us just the faintest glimpses into Bernadette's passion throughout the film, ultimately giving us a reason as to why she's so revered. There's a sense of complexity that you can never quite unravel with Bernadette that we as the audience have to follow along with, and it makes her one of the more compelling leads we've gotten in a Linklater film.
The characters around Bernadette are also interesting in their own ways. Cruddup portrays Bernadette's husband Elgie as a well-meaning support figure, who, despite his evident care for the family, his efforts to help only drive her further away. Wig as Bernadette's neighbor Audrey gets a little bit of development to try and steer away from 'the white suburban mother you've seen a million times,' which actually kind of works in the end.
Then there's Bee, played by Emma Nelson, who I've heard other reviews say is portrayed as boring, and I wholeheartedly disagree. Sure, maybe a lot of her own character is based around the relationship she has with her mother, but it gives us an emotional hook to drive the story. Moments like a mother-daughter carpool karaoke, or Bernadette seeing Bee perform with a group of children at a school play, allow us to see Bernadette's own sense of compassion emerge past her own veneer.
'Where'd You Go, Bernadette' is, at its core, another Richard Linklater film. It's not doing too much different beyond his usual interests and it's not as cohesive or visually interesting as some of his other works have been. Again, maybe that's the point- that things can seem off sometimes, but if you follow through there's something interesting to be found - and that's all well and good, but from a director like this, I expect more.
Still, Cate Blanchett delivers in this, and that's at least intriguing enough to watch her explore her how creativity, both as a Linklater character and as an actress per usual. If you can be dragged in by what those two are doing here then this will be fairly entertaining, especially if you stick with it. For me, this is a real mixed bag, and that's disappointing.
Overall, I give 'Where'd You Go, Bernadette' 6/10.
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