Richard Linklater’s new movie never finds itself

Cate Blanchett stars in Where’d You Go, Bernadette, a peek into the weird world of privileged eccentrics.

My first job in Montreal was working at a dry cleaner in Outremont. A dry cleaner provides a service just luxurious enough that it isn’t frequented by everyone, and ours was twice as expensive as the other one down the street, which made it even more appealing to the moneyed masses of Outremont. At that job, I came into contact with celebrities, sure — but what I mostly came into contact with were the invisible privileged. 

Bankers, architects, professors, people in tech — people who would not necessarily be recognized by someone outside of their area of expertise, but who are a certain type of rock star to a select few. This pocket of society is also home to what I can only describe as “privileged eccentrics,” people so revered and successful in their chosen field that they can be any kind of off-the-grid asshole in real life without even risking their livelihood and reputations.

Privileged eccentrics are not the same as your garden-variety eccentric; they don’t necessarily wear funky pants or drive a weird car or self-tape acoustic renditions of Neil Diamond songs for unfrequented YouTube channels. They may well have a mental illness, but their surroundings make it so that this mental illness not only goes untreated but might even be upheld and encouraged. A privileged eccentric doesn’t have to be unpleasant, but the fact that you can kind of do whatever and no one cares does not generally inspire people to become altruistic and selfless. 

Suffice to say that I recognized a lot of regulars from the dry cleaner in Bernadette Fox, the character played by Cate Blanchett in Richard Linklater’s bungled, unsatisfactory Where’d You Go, Bernadette. A reclusive architect who stepped away from it all after being lauded in the same breath as Mies van de Rohe or Frank Gehry, Bernadette now lives in a dilapidated mansion in Seattle with her tech guru husband Elgin (Billy Crudup) and teenage daughter Bee (Emma Nelson). 

Bernadette hates most people outside of her immediate family; if it wasn’t for Bee, she would probably never leave the house at all. Bernadette gets everything done through the help of a remote personal assistant named Manjula — everything from planning a family trip to Antarctica to torturing her goody-two-shoes neighbour (Kristen Wiig) with passive aggressive billboards. But once the Antarctica trip rolls around, Bernadette will have to do the one thing she truly avoids: go out into the world.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette suffers from a critical perspective problem. As the title suggests, Bernadette goes missing — or certainly, that’s the premise of the book that the film is adapted from. The book tells the story from Bee’s perspective, which allows it to move forward and backwards in time. The film, on the other hand, is told from a linear perspective without a particular perspective. (Bee does a little voiceover narration, but not much.) 

It’s therefore more than a little weird that a movie that wonders where the main character has gone features that character in every scene, but more importantly, it gives us both too much and not enough. There are vestiges of what are clearly elements from the book, but they seem to have been retooled and rearranged arbitrarily. One scene features Bernadette watching a documentary about herself — surely an even lazier way to explore a character’s backstory than having two tertiary characters discuss said character in detail.

What clashes the most about Where’d You Go, Bernadette is that it’s a movie predicated on things we’re not meant to know, delivered in a way that tells us more than we even need to know. It’s a film about unpacking the complexity of a person — a mother, an architect, a genius, a depressive, a wife, a neighbour — that does virtually no actual unpacking, instead preferring to give us every piece laid out in front of us, ready to assemble. 

Bernadette is supposed to be this quirky, unknowable, intimidating and human force of nature, and yet she simply comes across as phony. She’s an assemblage of quirks that never coalesces into anything resembling a real person. Linklater approaches the material extremely matter-of-factly, as if it were some kind of hour-long drama on ABC, but gets caught up on some of the more artificial quirks held within. In other words, it’s a character study of a person who never feels at all like a person.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette feels most of all like a late-period Cameron Crowe movie, filled with bland earnestness and flights of eccentric fancy that just aren’t what they’re cracked up to be. Even its ending comes kind of half-assedly, presenting an emotional catharsis that looks, feels and sounds exactly like everything else that preceded it. Like the latest crop of Cameron Crowe movies, I don’t doubt that there was something touching to someone about this material — but the treatment really doesn’t betray this in any way.

It’s not a complete disaster. Linklater, as always, is a very detail-oriented director, and he seems to have developed an utter fascination with the concepts of architecture that are contained within the otherwise-pedestrian screenplay. The credits play over a sped-up montage of an architectural project depicted in the movie; suddenly, Linklater seems fired up in a way he never was in the preceding two hours, putting together a kind of half-assed cross between Modern Family and a Wes Anderson movie.

There are movies that don’t work at a fundamental level — not because of miscalculations or a lack of talent, but perhaps a simple lack of reason to be. Whatever worked on the page in Where’d You Go, Bernadette (the novel) has stayed back there. It’s not a bad movie in the traditional sense — just one that never even gets started. ■

Where’d You Go, Bernadette opens in theatres on Friday, Aug. 16. Watch the trailer here: