“Who’s ever written a great work about the immense effort required in order to not create?” Of all the quotable lines in Richard Linklater’s sprawling ensemble comedy Slacker—the thriftiest and most influential American independent film of the early 1990s—this one, delivered by a character known only as “Dostoyevsky wannabe” (Brecht Andersch), may resonate the loudest in the context of its creator’s career. As difficult as it can seem to categorize Linklater’s relentlessly shape-shifting cinema, which ranges from teen comedy (Dazed and Confused) to paranoid sci-fi (A Scanner Darkly) to romantic drama (the monumental Before trilogy), the insatiable desire for self-expression is a recurring theme.
His films are filled with characters looking for an outlet for their gifts, and whether they’re aspiring photographers, wannabe rock stars, or Orson Welles, Linklater identifies with and exalts their ambitions. If there is one rule in Linklater’s personal cinematic universe (a concept visualized in his self-reflexive mid-career masterpiece Waking Life, with its rotoscoped callbacks to Slacker and Before Sunrise) it is this: Boredom is the enemy.
Viewed through this lens, Linklater’s decision to adapt Maria Semple’s 2012 best seller Where’d You Go, Bernadette makes perfect sense. At its core, it’s a story about a brilliant artist who has to be coerced—by the people around her, and from within—to resume her practice after two decades of self-willed exile. Its namesake, Bernadette Fox (Cate Blanchett), is a prematurely retired architect whose reputation precedes her in ways that split the difference between flattering and harrowing. She’s famous enough to be recognized in public by fans and chronicled in fawning online video essays, but she’s also perceived as a pariah. After relocating to Seattle from Los Angeles, she’s become reclusive, as fiercely devoted to her husband, Elgin (Billy Crudup), and teenage daughter, Bee (Emma Nelson), as she is hilariously hostile to everybody else. The question in the film’s title also hovers over Bernadette’s hard-edged eccentricity and paralyzed creativity. Where did the artist go? And is she ever coming back?
The existential dimensions of Semple’s mystery interest Linklater far more than the literal ones, which is evident in how he downplays the material’s major narrative twist: Bernadette’s disappearance before a planned family trip to Antarctica. In the book, Bee has to search through her mother’s electronic personal correspondence, Girl With the Dragon Tattoo–style, to reconstitute both her long-buried backstory and the circumstances of her absence. It’s a modern version of an epistolary thriller, lighter and more sentimental than Gone Girl but similarly involved in discombobulating the reader. Linklater’s script, cowritten with Holly Gent and Vincent Palmo Jr., dispenses with Semple’s intricate structure and unfolds in a mostly linear fashion, parceling out exposition in a very detached, 21st-century way (Bee watches a YouTube documentary about her mom’s career) and putting Bernadette and Blanchett’s nervy, old-fashioned bravura acting front and center. It’s not just that an often experimental filmmaker ends up playing it straight: As a result of Linklater’s decision, we’re not only complicit in Bernadette’s actions, but also compelled to share her point of view.
At this point in her career, Blanchett can basically play anything, and a high-functioning, heavily medicated, neurotic architect is right in her wheelhouse. This is a more shaded and persuasive vision of a woman on the verge than her Oscar-winning faux–Blanche DuBois act in Blue Jasmine, a movie by a much less empathetic director that was also a critique of 1-percenter entitlement—an issue that Linklater frames very differently. Where’d You Go, Bernadette is far more attentive to matters of wealth and class than most mainstream American comedies, which either take for granted the idea of gated-community largesse (as in the fantasies of Nancy Meyers or Judd Apatow) or else use the rich as punching bags for likeable vulgar, proletarian heroes (i.e., Caddyshack and its “snobs-vs-slobs” legacy).
Here, Bernadette and Elgin are presented as almost impossibly well off (he’s got a corner office at Microsoft) and despite a few satirical jabs at the glossy hypocrisy of their neighbors—embodied by Kristen Wiig in cartoon mean-mom mode—there’s no judgment, implied or otherwise, about their finances. They’re super rich and, as such, largely insulated from the problems generated by Bernadette’s erratic behavior.
Unfortunately, it’s that same sense of having a cushion—or a high-thread-count safety net—that makes Where’d You Go, Bernadette feel a bit too cushy for its own good. Even as its cast acts the hell out of their scenes, the stakes feel low, dropped even further by some of Linklater’s odd choices, like having the interviewees in a documentary about Bernadette’s career all played by distractingly familiar actors.
In order for the movie to work—for it to be really funny and surprising instead of just amusing and a bit weird—it would have to seem like Bernadette was truly out of control; our complicity would have to boomerang back on us, a bit. And yet even the jagged edges of Blanchett’s performance are rounded off by reminders that the catastrophes she leaves in her wake are either essentially victimless crimes or accidents. Even the primal scene of Bernadette’s depression, once unveiled, casts her as a blameless victim of nouveau-riche stupidity—a casualty of an even richer idiot’s aesthetic blind spot.
Because Linklater never truly risks alienating his audience, the story’s central mechanism of Bernadette as an intractable outsider rings hollow. Instead, she’s a lovable eccentric, and while that persona might have worked if the story was still being told through Bee, who idolizes her mother and even replicates some of her antisocial tendencies, it’s fatally unpersuasive in this format. (It also keeps Crudup from letting Elgin become much more than a well-meaning foil.) Ideally, we’d simultaneously identify with and be leery of Bernadette’s rationalizations for her behavior; as it is, we’re only ever rooting for her. The plodding mechanical process by which the script works to manufacture her redemption is almost beside the point. From the very first scene onward, we’re given no real reason to doubt her goodness—and, however eccentrically expressed, her common sense. So why should we doubt that she’ll get her architectural groove back as well?
It may be that Linklater’s hardwired instinct to identify with anybody trying to get in touch with their artistic impulses is what prevents Where’d You Go, Bernadette from achieving true seriocomic velocity. Nevertheless, it’s hard, in these days of anodyne adaptations of preexisting IP, to come down on a movie for being too personal. The film is dedicated to Linklater’s mother, who is referred to in the closing credits as “my Bernadette,” and there are little moments between Blanchett and Nelson that crystallize the flip side of the movie’s thesis about the relationship between life and art.
Late in the film, Elgin tells his daughter a story about giving his wife a Saint Bernadette’s medallion, in honor of the patron saint of visions. When Bee was born after a difficult pregnancy, Bernadette narrowed her own point of view to care for her child. She didn’t necessarily have to choose between motherhood and her career, but she did. The comedy and pathos of the story are rooted in the consequences of that calculus. Even if the ultimate outcome is a bit neater and tidier than we’ve come to expect from a director who’s at his best when he’s a bit unkempt, there’s maturity and maybe even wisdom mixed in to the cop-out.