There are several scenes in Where'd You Go, Bernadette? in which Cate Blanchett, playing the poised and brittle renowned architect of the title, rails over the phone or to those she's close to about her antipathy toward Seattle, her professional frustrations, and her hesitations about an upcoming family trip. Over several of them, Graham Reynolds' jaunty, teasing score (he can't be blamed for how it's deployed) plays at levels nearly even with her chatter, a kind of assurance that she is merely quirky and feeling the burdens of existential angst after 20 years of retirement — and that, despite the (fairly just) worries of those around her, she is no grave threat to herself or others. For those readers unready to cry a tear for a woman who "has" to go with her loving husband (Billy Crudup) and daughter (Emma Nelson) on a cruise vacation she needn't even weigh from a budgetary standpoint, you'd best prepare yourself: for Where'd You Go's lead is full of this kind of nervy blather even as the movie that trails her feels uncomfortable living with the feelings (or motivations) that might drive it.
Richard Linklater, probably best-known for Dazed and Confused and Boyhood, cultivated early in his career a style of easy naturalism that privileged an empathetic, patient, and earnestly attentive stance toward a wide sweep of castes. Nerds, jocks, parents, children, socialites, loners, and even murderers have all felt the benefit of his gentle, sympathetic cinematic gaze. Having furthered a deceptively lackadaisical pace that owes an aesthetic debt to Robert Altman (Nashville) and Éric Rohmer (Claire's Knee, Le Rayon Vert) as much as the Maysles brothers' documentaries, his work of late feels simply so. The guy who broke out with 1990's radiantly shaggy Slacker, populated with a range of characters so particular that they move far past type, is slacking lately in both choice and depiction of his subjects. Whereas in Slacker he lent an ear to Austin's then-abundant crop of bohemian oddballs, artists, and conspiracy theorists with a blend of insight, feeling, and ironic self-awareness, here he turns his attention to the kind of well-heeled white people who already serve as film and TV's ubiquitous subjects with a vision that seems strangely unmoored in terms of tone. Though adorned with some quite wooly plotting (an FBI investigation, a disappearing person, neighborhood shenanigans), it lacks the sense of wandering, lifelike texture and movement that typifies his better work, feeling aesthetically sleek without gaining a sense of economy from such slimming. Set over a record-setting wet winter, Linklater's Pacific Northwest here is flatly lit and (only) fine to look at, awash in a unifying even, soft white light that emphasizes the film's genteel aesthetic conservatism. Portions shot in Antarctica feature the requisite drone, penguin, and flopping seal footage, alongside wide shots of kayakers staring at icebergs that one can easily find one-upped on Instagram. Caught in the cool, drab waters that make its reasons for being (commercial, personal?), Where'd You Go's reasons for being as it is seem as muddled at its lead's.
Whether Bernadette suffers from some hazy combination of depression, a substance problem, impostor syndrome, or familial estrangement is a question that's deliberately teased over the movie's rumpled course — but her expression of this storm of feelings never becomes rough or wild enough to become truly convincing. Wealthy neighborhood moms, Big Little Lies-style, abhor her for sequestering herself, taking her misanthropy as a personal slight. When they call her out she seems wounded; like a lot of self-proclaimed loners, whether she's actually apathetic to others' perceptions seems very much in doubt. Blanchett, whose charisma and acuity are still evident here, turns in work that's both forceful and directionless, a ship without a rudder. Emotional speeches and debates between her and others have the tenor of forced exposition, but she's better off still than her daughter Bee, who mars the movie with glibly observed bits of theme-pushing narration. Like the score, her narration is manifestly extra: a structural salve intended to unify a film afraid to get as messy as it should be, flirting with one woman's inner turmoil while shrinking away from the gravity of her feelings and the danger they might conjure. It doesn't take much to see past such aesthetic ornaments. What we're left with after doing so is a movie that's afraid to trust deeply in feeling or in character, steadfastly appropriate and inoffensive in a way the human mind's just not. Lacking a sense of irony, control, or convincingly unifying tone, what Linklater's shot here might be better had it the slightest whiff of risk.
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