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Film Reviews The messy, tonally confusing Where’d You Go, Bernadette asks a question only Cate Blanchett obsessives will care to answer

Cate Blanchett stars as Bernadette Fox in Richard Linklater’s Where'd You Go, Bernadette.

Wilson Webb/Annapurna Pictures / Courtesy of Entertainment One

  • Where’d You Go, Bernadette
  • Directed by: Richard Linklater
  • Written by: Richard Linklater, Holly Gent and Vince Palmo
  • Starring: Cate Blanchett, Billy Crudup and Kristen Wiig
  • Classification: PG; 100 minutes

rating

Before even the first frame of Where’d You Go, Bernadette revealed itself, I counted four distinct reasons why the new Richard Linklater film might be in trouble.

The first three require a healthy amount of film-industry-bred cynicism, which courses through my veins like so much B-positive blood. For starters, there’s the fact that Bernadette is being released in the middle of August, never a kind time for filmgoers, and rivalling only early January in the eyes of distributors as a dumping ground for movies that have, in myriad ways, gone very, very wrong. (Something that Annapurna Pictures, seemingly in the fight of its life at the moment, knows all about.)

Then there’s the fact that the movie has hopscotched across the release calendar, previously promising to open in May 2018, only to be rescheduled four more times. To add to my skepticism – or to reinforce a notion that was nearly already rock-solid – press screenings of the drama came attached with an embargo that no review shall be published until Aug. 14, 9 p.m. ET, or just 24 hours before the first public screenings. Which is a move typical for a suspiciously stench-y wannabe blockbuster, but highly unusual for a small-scale drama starring Cate Blanchett.

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Blanchett's line-readings are unconvincing and her physicality extraordinarily mannered, Barry Hertz writes.

Wilson Webb/Annapurna Pictures / Courtesy of Entertainment One

Still, the ingredients for a hit are sitting right there. In addition to Blanchett, the cast boasts Billy Crudup, Kristen Wiig, Judy Greer and a handful of talented Linklater veterans (Laurence Fishburne, Steve Zahn). The work is adapted from the bestselling, highly acclaimed 2012 novel by Maria Semple. And Linklater himself has always been, at the very least, an interesting filmmaker. Even when he’s not being Boyhood-level ambitious, he can be found riding a gentle groove of inquisitive, heart-on-his-sleeve energy (I will continue to salute Last Flag Flying). Production details aside, how bad could Bernadette be?

And then I tallied my fourth reason. As Linklater’s film opens, we’re greeted with a black screen, generically stylized title cards and a score by Graham Reynolds that instantly murdered any of the middling hopes I still had. An unholy confection of sonic quirk and treacle, the string-heavy music of Bernadette tells us that we’re all in for a tonally confused mess of a movie, all before we even meet our title character (Blanchett) or muster any enthusiasm as to care where, exactly, she might have gone.

We’re introduced to Bernadette as she walks through her giant Seattle mansion, which looks like a leftover from a Tim Burton movie – all peeling paint, creeping vines and twisted staircases. It’s here where Bernadette lives with her husband Elgie (Crudup) and her precocious, Antarctica-obsessed teenage daughter Bee (Emma Nelson). The trio seem happy, even when Bernadette is feuding with the next-door neighbour (a wasted Wiig) or spending hours giving iPhone dictations to her India-based virtual assistant. But for what seems like the longest stretch of time, we are given no real reason to care about any of these people or their various quirks.

The context for their living situation – some rooms are immaculately designed, others are hazard zones – and Bernadette’s entire character are only explained about 45 minutes in via the laziest narrative device I’ve ever encountered in a film: a faux YouTube documentary about Bernadette’s life. The extended clip reveals why the family is living where they are, what exactly Elgie does for a living and how our Bernadette was once a famous architect who bottomed out, and is now … well, I’m not sure who she is now, or why the film thinks her story matters.

Uncertainty is the key word to understanding, or surviving, the film. The narrative bops up and down in such an agitated, sloppy manner – there are subplots varying in complexity from Bernadette’s competition with her neighbours to a criminal conspiracy involving Russian hackers, all of which are resolved far too tidily when they aren’t forgotten about completely – that it seems bored with or alternately disgusted with itself. The story might hew closely to Semple’s source material, but that work was epistolary (told through Bernadette’s e-mails and memos) and the misguided desire to translate that into a feature film has resulted in a strange and frustratingly uneven production.

Like Blanchett's, Billy Crudup's performance is surprisingly belaboured.

Wilson Webb/Annapurna Pictures / Courtesy of Entertainment One

It’s a confusion that spreads to the cast. Prior to this, it was near-impossible to conjure a bad Blanchett performance. Yet the actress here seems to be stuck in an amateur-hour dinner theatre of the mind, her line-readings unconvincing and her physicality extraordinarily mannered. It is not exactly boring, but it is jaw-droppingly belaboured. The same goes for Crudup, even if – between this and this week’s other prestige-drama release, After the Wedding – he is unintentionally becoming indie cinema’s go-to choice for playing poor-sap wealthy husbands. Newcomer Nelson should come out unscathed, given that her character seems to only exist to provide sporadic narration.

There is, buried deep somewhere in Linklater’s film or however many edits it may have undergone – the thing reeks of indecision – an insightful, even invigorating story about what happens to a creative genius once they stop creating. But the actual work presents a good argument that, for some artists, it might be best to quit while you’re ahead.

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Where’d You Go, Bernadette opens Aug. 16.

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