Cate Blanchett Suffers From Delusions of Grandeur in Richard Linklater’s ‘Where’d You Go Bernadette’
No genius is perfect. Everyone is prone to idolize what they love and wear blind passion on their sleeves. But the brain can be also be a discounting mechanism and the best artists often need to be reminded to ignore the voice that’s screaming at them to do better.
Starring Cate Blanchett as Bernadette, an architect with a god complex who has won a genius grant, Richard Linklater’s far from flawless comedy, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” houses important discourse on depression, anxiety and delusion, and features an unforgettable lead performance from an acting icon. Opening with a series of stunning landscape shots over Antarctica, Bernadette kayaks across clear blue water, entrenched between a group of massive glaciers. The movie flashes back to five weeks earlier, where we formally meet the architect’s family, her daughter, Bee (played by newcomer Emma Nelson), and her husband, Elgie (Billy Crudup).
Bee’s parents told her that she could have anything she wanted if she got straight A’s on her report card. When she delivers on that arrangement, Bee begs to take a trip to Antarctica, and her parents are forced to say yes. But Bernadette is far from happy about the situation. She fulminates at the mouth to her unseen personal assistant, Manjula, sending long, rambling, and paranoid instruction emails to her, barking into the speaker of her phone, presumably because she thinks and talks faster than anyone could write. Another issue surrounding Bernadette’s incessant worrying, is how inactive she has become. Bernadette does very little outside of her private bubble, other than drive her daughter to and from school.
Audrey (Kristen Wiig), the family’s next-door neighbor, also seems to have it out for Bernadette. One day, after speeding away from the carpool lane — an act that causes Audrey to stumble and hurt herself — she insists that Bernadette pay for her emergency room bill, feigning that her foot was run over. Due to basic human interaction issues, Bernadette has grown to hate people and is convinced the world feels the same way about her. When she is unable to handle picking up her prescriptions in person one afternoon, Elgie, a tech giant who works for Microsoft, discovers a secret stash of pills Bernadette has been hoarding in their bathroom and seeks psychiatric guidance from a professional, Dr. Kurtz (Judy Greer).
With the exception of some hints from an online video that provides Bernadette with some backstory, and a lunch she has with an old architect associate (played by Laurence Fishburne), we learn very little about why our lead character has a chip on her shoulder, why she treats people the way she does, entirely by design. But we do know that she’s always been told she’s a genius by those who hold a badge of honor. When her scuffle with Audrey comes to a head, it is legitimately questioned whether Bernadette is aiming to get even, as if she sees herself as an infallible being, above that of the existence of her nosy neighbor. She’s an artist who’s convinced the world sees her as a menace to society, which has brought the ailing woman to a place of isolation, self-harm and ruin.
Based on the novel of the same name by Maria Semple, Linklater’s movie is curious adaption considering his previous interests as a filmmaker. While the book was written in epistolary form, told via a series of letters and other documents, written by Bee, the movie is basically told from her mother’s perspective, despite some of the novel’s narration making its way into the film via voice-over — which is not entirely successful, but nowhere near as distracting and detrimental as other book-to-screen translations. One might have expected the film to be a companion piece to “Boyhood,” given the source material. But, Linklater plotted a different course this time, and a maternal figures drives the story (the director also dedicated the film to his late mother). The middle section of the movie, following Bernadette as she spirals further int grandiosity, is outstanding. Unfortunately, the last act is leaden and clunky, and the material overstays its welcome, with the score sometimes undercutting the impact of the script.
The movie feels a little overproduced (not all too surprising considering the source material’s success). Some stylistic choices come off as a little unwelcome. Linklater moves the camera much more than he normally does. The choice to use Cyndi Lauper’s song, Time After Time, as a kind of car anthem for Bee and Bernadette, is an inspiring creative stroke, though, and likely only something Richard Linklater — whose work cares a great deal about time, and its impact on the human condition — would think to frame the central relationship of the film around.
Still, sometimes, when you’re good at something, people place you on a pedestal of higher standards. And when you’ve directed some of the most memorable films of the past few decades (“Dazed & Confused,” ‘The Before Trilogy,’ “Boyhood”) people hold you to impossibly insane expectations. Linklater’s newest is far from his best film, but it is a skillfully made movie that successfully addresses mental health issues, automatic thoughts and their connection to emotional bias.
“Nobody hates you, Bernadette,” Elgie tries to convince her. “There’s a larger context to the problem,” would be Bernadette’s answer to his reassurance. When you’re told you’re a genius for most of your life, you may eventually start to believe such nonsense, especially if that thumbs up comes from a badge of authority. While admittedly far from a perfect film adaption, Cate Blanchett and Richard Linklater’s creative collaboration is an inconsistent but inspiring movie on recognizing when negative thought patterns have become too incessant and unhealthy to ignore.
“Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” opens Aug. 16 in theaters nationwide.