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 recent 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.