Cate Blanchett gives a powerhouse performance in Richard Linklater’s adaptation of Maria Semple’s 2012 bestseller, a sprawling epistolary novel about a troubled woman’s journey of self-discovery—or, more precisely, self-rediscovery. Like many of the director’s films, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” gives a quirkily lapidary spin to a tale that might have been treated in more conventional fashion, and is all the better for it, while Blanchett’s take on an eccentric, socially maladroit, even misanthropic character is riveting.
In the script wrestled from the book by the director, Holly Gent and Vincent Palmo, Jr., Bernadette Fox (Blanchett), as we’re told by, among others, university professor Paul Jellinek (Laurence Fishburne) in a faux documentary portrait, was one of the most imaginative and edgy American architects of her time, the recipient of a MacArthur “Genius” grant for her early “green” philosophy. But when an ambitious project—her “Twenty Mile” house, made entirely of materials from within that radius—was sabotaged by a heedless entrepreneur, she abandoned her career, married successful software engineer Elgie (or LG) Branch (Billy Crudup), and moved with him to Seattle, where he’s a major player at Microsoft. They live in a huge, ramshackle estate—once a girls’ school— much of which remains dilapidated as Bernadette ignores the long-planned restoration..
Instead Bernadette, always headstrong and uncompromising, threw herself entirely into being a mother to Bee, the child she and LG struggled to conceive, who went through series of health crises as an infant, and their relationship is now close and intense. But ultra-smart Bee (Emma Nelson) is preparing to go off to a faraway prep school, and what she requests as a graduation present is that her parents take her on a trip to Antarctica.
Bernadette impulsively agrees although she’s terrified of travel and, even more, of dealing with the other passengers on the ship that will carry them to the icebound continent. For years, in fact, she has practically withdrawn from outside human contact, leaving the direction of her affairs to a virtual assistant in India named Manjula, who arranges everything for her via phone calls, text messages and e-mails. When she interacts with others—a fan who recognizes her, her neighbor Audrey (Kristen Wiig), who’s also the prime volunteer for the school both their children attend, tradespeople—she’s invariably rude and dismissive. And LG has just hired as an assistant another of the school’s mothers, a close friend of Audrey, whom she suspects of making a move on him.
Several disasters combine to prod LG to stage an intervention with a psychologist (Jane Greer). Bernadette ordered some landscaping that resulted in a mudslide inundating Audrey’s home. Her desperate efforts to come up with an excuse to forego Bee’s trip result in her overmedicating herself dangerously. And, as lawmen (James Urbaniak and Steve Zahn) abruptly intervene to announce, Manjula is more sinister than Bernedette ever supposed. Bernadette flees to an unexpected ally and decides to go on that Antarctica trip herself, hoping to link up with Bee and LG and fix her family in the process.
But what about fixing herself? Quixotically, Antarctica gives her the opportunity to follow the advice of Jellinek, whom she’d bumped into earlier in Seattle, and who suggested that the only way she could recover from her admitted woes would be to again embrace the creative spark that she’d abandoned.
This may not be Linklater’s strongest film; given her life of unabashed privilege, its protagonist can come across as unsympathetic, and structurally it often meanders and sometimes stutters—evidence of how difficult it must have been to devise a flowing narrative from such a multi-layered, rambling source (and for editor Sandra Adair to find the right rhythm). But it captures the devotion between parents and their daughter with much the same quiet skill that “Boyhood” did the bond between parents and their son, as well as showing how women can overcome animosity to aid one another in times of need. And in the final act, luminously shot by Shane F. Kelly in the southernmost reaches of earth, it achieves the sort of visual bliss rarely encountered in commercial film.
And the cast is very fine. Blanchett rules with her take-no-prisoners turn, but one cannot overlook the outstanding work of newcomer Nelson, who avoids the sin of precociousness even when coming across as the smartest person in the room, and carries off Bee’s nastier moments as well, Crudup has less opportunity to excel, but exudes the rather obtuse reasonableness LG represents, and though her role requires less shading, Wiig is reliably engaging. All the others acquit themselves ably.
“Where’d You Go, Bernadette?” may prove overly arch and affected for some viewers, but Linklater’s sense of humanity shines through, and Blanchett’s blistering performance is a tour de force.