There’s a really good movie hiding in
Where’d You Go, Bernadette, but by the time the heroine runs
off in the second half, it’s nowhere to be found. The failure is epic
and confused enough to bring not just one film’s flaws to mind, but
two. On the one hand, it resembles another
flop which also tried to satire wealthy trappings and
obsessions, only to end up fully investing in them in the most
saccharine way possible. The other resemblance isn’t quite so obvious
or timely. Many movies end up not only replicating but exacerbating
the flaws of their source material, but perhaps only The Help
made more wrongheaded decisions with an on-screen adaptation.
The result here isn’t quite so
insulting, but it’s close. Where’d You Go faces a few more
obstacles, since the book was mostly built on transcripts such as
emails and memos that don’t exactly translate well to the screen.
That’s not what holds the film back though, and its flaws aren’t
initially conspicuous, what with Cate Blanchett effortlessly
conveying Bernadette’s large, exuberant personality that’s mostly
wasted in the suburbs, and a director like Richard Linklater, who
also co-wrote the screenplay. Because make no mistake, in spite of
the grunge wear that is as interwoven into the Seattle setting as its
cloudy weather and endless greenery, this is a story about suburban
life and how much every social interaction is carefully measured,
with consequences doled out accordingly.
Even if Where’d You Go is a rare
miss for Linklater, his trademark emphasis on character still
abounds. In the beginning, Linklater is not only able to capture more
than a few nuances of Bernadette’s insular, uber-parenting social
circle, he’s able to transform limitations into assets by having
Bernadette dictate many of the emails that are the heart of the book.
Blanchett’s narration conveys an isolation and loneliness that is
gently but firmly enforced by Linklater’s direction, which makes
excellent use of the beautiful decay of the family’s home, a former
girls’ school which Bernadette and her family haven’t ever gotten
around to fixing up.
Due to Bernadette’s difficult, prickly
nature, her only real friend is her daughter Bee (Emma Nelson), who
was conceived after her successful career as an architect – which
included a MacArthur Genius Grant – was cut short. Bee was
conceived after a series of miscarriages, and Bernadette’s warmth
towards her is very much reciprocated, with Bee always defending her
mother from attacks from others, including mostly wasted Kristen
Wiig, as Bernadette’s adversary, then unlikely ally.
Bernadette soon needs all the help she can get, because her nonconformity has the kind of backlash that’s usually associated with the 50s. As her career waned, her tech-savvy husband Elgie (Billy Crudup) only continued to rise. As he becomes estranged from his wife, his worry for her increases due to a series of misunderstandings which leads him and others to believe that Bernadette may need to be confined to a mental institution against her wishes.
It’s an incredibly dark turn Where’d
You Go refuses to appreciate, almost thinking that bringing in
Judy Greer as a female doctor who leads Bernadette’s intervention
solves the extremely sexist scenario at work. Bernadette is a woman
with a temperament that is deemed difficult, a label with real
consequences for women. She’s agoraphobic and almost never leaves
their home, delegating many basic tasks to an online assistant who
turns out to be a scam artist. In other words, an unlikable wife and
mother who refuses or outright fails to do basic homemaking tasks and
doesn’t get along well with others? It’s basically a modern diagnosis
of female hysteria, and during her intervention no one wants to hear
Bernadette speak for herself.
When she is allowed to be heard, it’s
rather easy to see where her problems lie. Linklater at least
recognizes this, juxtaposing Bernadette’s own boisterous recital of
her history to a former colleague with Elgie’s calm, measured recital
of how he sees his wife’s mental state to a doctor tasked with
determining if she needs treatment. All of Bernadette’s traits would
be excused, and even celebrated, as the usual hazards of genius if
she were a man. While Elgie got to thrive and be appreciated for his
hard work, Bernadette witnessed the project she put her heart and
soul into collapse. It’s no accident that Bernadette came up in the
90s, a period that saw one feminist resurgence, only to reemerge just
as another women’s movement is underway.
Yet the movie would rather head
straight into syrupy territory after Bernadette runs off and Elgie
must learn What Really Matters. It’s downright terrifying just how
quickly Where’d You Go decides to try and make Elgie Mr.
Sensitive after attempting to have his wife committed, but the movie
seems to believe it’s more important to extol the virtues of family
above all else. It even explicitly has Elgie and Bee grant Bernadette
permission to have a career once again. For all the book’s flaws, it
recognized Elgie’s sins and refused to offer any definitive answer on
whether his marriage would survive. That a movie would twist its
message so much is enough to be thankful that lobotomies have gone
out of fashion. But embracing this movie might just require one.