Prickly genius pines for meaningful work in Where’d You Go, Bernadette

When Langston Hughes, in his poem “Harlem,” asked the rhetorical question, “What happens to a dream deferred?” he had the struggles of African Americans specifically in mind. But, as in any truly classic work of literature, his observation can be generalized, even universalized to all humankind. Bernadette Fox, the protagonist of Maria Semple’s satirical 2012 epistolary novel Where’d You Go, Bernadette and of Richard Linklater’s new movie based on it, is seriously suffering the effects of a dream deferred. So, by extension, are her husband Elgie Branch and their daughter Bee.

But this is no hard-pressed Harlem family whose every challenge is exacerbated by being black and/or poor. They live in an enormous house in an upscale Seattle suburb. Workaholic Elgie (Billy Crudup) started out as a film animator who sold a gadget to Microsoft and is now a hotshot software developer. Bernadette (Cate Blanchett) was a sustainable architecture prodigy who won a slew of professional awards and a MacArthur “genius grant” for designing and building the 20 Mile House, using only materials that could be sourced within a 20-mile radius. Both came from families who could afford to send them to prep school, and now their daughter has been accepted at Choate.

The fact that theirs are First World problems works against the emotional accessibility of this family, whom we meet on the verge of fracture. Practically every conflict they have, it’s plain, would be a thousand times worse if they weren’t white and wealthy. Actually, it would be a different set of problems altogether, considering how shallow, materialistic and competitive their equally white wealthy neighbors are, and the parents of Bee’s schoolmates. And yet one need not belong to their class, nor aspire to it, to feel for them as their story unspools.

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In the novel, Bernadette is described as suffering from agoraphobia. It’s less clear in the film what diagnosis of mental illness best fits her. Certainly the people who surround her, with the sole exception of her daughter, are constantly searching for a label. Extreme social anxiety seems like a fair description, bipolar disorder an outside chance. But are these really irrational mood swings? Or is Bernadette simply energized when she has a meaningful project, depressed when she does not? Focused intently on raising a child born with a life-threatening heart defect, she has not worked at her profession in more than a decade, is medicated up the wazoo, hates the company of people outside her immediate family and rarely leaves the house, relying on dictated notes to a remote personal assistant in India to manage her affairs.

The one foray outside the home that excites Bernadette is a planned family trip to Antarctica, a treat long promised to Bee as a reward for good grades. Under what circumstances she gets there constitutes the backbone of this tale’s narrative arc – especially once Elgie and Bee are forced to cope with her sudden disappearance. The story’s heart lies in the bond between mother and daughter, their mutual adoration, the sacrifices they make and the lies they tell themselves in order to live up to each other’s expectations. There’s a sort of shiny wall around them, with the baffled, well-meaning father turning to work and other distractions when he finds this female symbiosis too daunting to penetrate.

Bernadette’s character journey is propelled by a series of disasters, largely involving her antagonistic relationship with next-door neighbor Audrey (Kristin Wiig), that force her both to dig deeper into the pain of her own past – notably the purchase and demolition of the 20 Mile House by a despicable neighbor back in LA – and to admit that she sometimes does need other people. Most of all, she needs to create: a message most clearly articulated by her architecture school mentor, portrayed by Laurence Fishburne. He’s a guy who knows how to listen, and shows up at a time when Bernadette is feeling unseen, unheard and useless.

There’s plenty of fine acting on display in this movie, but the screen truly lights up whenever Fishburne or Emma Nelson, the brilliant young newcomer who plays Bee, takes center stage. Blanchett, as usual, handles a demanding role with aplomb. Though this performance is far from a career best, it’s fun enough to watch her channel a woman who knows that nobody likes her and doesn’t give a crap…mostly.

It would appear that Linklater spent most of his production budget on the actors. Where’d You Go, Bernadette is unimpressive on the technical end; scenes on boats and in Antarctica tend to look like they were are actually shot on soundstages with cheap CGI backdrops. And the editing is often shoddy, resulting in distracting continuity errors, especially in scenes where several people are seated around a table having a conversation. More than once, the camera cuts away from the speaker for a reaction shot, then comes back to find their arm or head not quite in the position one would have expected it to have been a couple of heartbeats later. Sandra Adair has been Linklater’s editor on every one of his films since 1993; maybe this is an artistic decision, or maybe he doesn’t think to ask for more.

Overall, Where’d You Go, Bernadette is a worthier movie than its limp Rotten Tomatoes rating would seem to suggest. The three main characters put a lot of heart into trying to save a family unit that has sailed into treacherous waters, and they ultimately become, for all their flaws (and privileges), relatable human beings.

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