What, exactly, are we to make of Bernadette Fox (Cate Blanchett), the dysfunctional slacker architect with the racing tongue and the porcupine disposition who’s at the center of Richard Linklater’s “Where’d You Go, Bernadette”? Bernadette lives in a beautiful crumbling mansion, perched on a Seattle hilltop, that she spends her days indolently renovating. Everywhere in the house, there are signs of her visual imagination (printed pamphlets folded into cones and stacked as wallpaper; splashes of surreal color). But it’s clear that the project stalled a long time ago, because the place is a half-finished wreck, with chipped paint and scarred moldings and barely furnished rooms.
What does Bernadette do? Basically, she does nothing at all, except talk a blue streak of manic invective. She’s a drop-dead misanthrope who spends all day, every day, putting down everybody and everything. She hates the neighbors. She hates the mothers at her daughter’s school. She hates the architecture of Seattle. (Seattle? It’s lucky she doesn’t live in Cleveland or Memphis.) She hates it all because she thinks she’s above it all.
There’s a place in movies for characters who are grandiose spewing narcissists, like Richard E. Grant’s counterculture rotter in “Withnail & I” or Meryl Streep’s witty control freak of a druggie showbiz daughter in “Postcards from the Edge.” Even when the things they say are “unreasonable,” they can speak for us. They blurt out the thoughts we don’t dare to, and that makes them, in movie terms, redemptive smart-mouth punks. Blanchett certainly plays Bernadette that way — as a world-class hellion and pill-popping insomniac whose lack of a filter renders her a kind of scandalous truth-teller. The actress, in bobbed hair and (often) a pair of sunglasses that give her an aura of Anna Wintour hauteur, is in full command, snapping out her lines as if she were Dorothy Parker reborn as a mad housewife.
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Yet the character, as the film presents her, is preaching from an awfully high-and-mighty pulpit. When she snarls at her next-door neighbor, Audrey (Kristen Wiig), who’s a perilously “progressive” social climber, the words sting, and should, but too much of the time Bernadette tosses her darts with undiscriminating hostility. She’s so reflexively intolerant and superior that when she’s approached at the Seattle Public Library by a young woman who’s a fan of hers, and she swats the admirer away like a mosquito, it’s not like we’re moved to say, “Good one!” She’s also not above sneaky acts of destruction, like agreeing to remove the blackberry vines from the edge of her property, but only because she knows the brick facade that borders Audrey’s yard may then come sliding down. (It does, with disastrous results.)
Bernadette’s husband, Elgin Branch (Billy Crudup), known as Elgie, is a major player at Microsoft, which means, of course, that their family is wealthy; they’re part of the Pacific Northwest tech boom of the ’90s. Elgie is a warm and strong and loving dude, eternally supportive of Bernadette, though we hear occasional murmurings at home about the fact that he works long hours. (You want to say to the complainers: Welcome to this thing called the 21st century!) Bernadette’s daughter, Bee (played by the sparkling newcomer Emma Nelson), is also nice, with an avid independent streak, though thankfully, and maybe a bit unrealistically, she’s inherited very little of her mother’s acid-putdown quality.
It’s clear that Bernadette, while surrounded by all this love, is in the midst of a severe life crisis, one that she refuses to get help for (she rejects therapy, though hoards pharmaceutical drugs like candy). But the strange thing about “Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” which Linklater adapted from Maria Semple’s 2012 novel, is that we in the audience may feel like we’ve figured out her problem long before the movie does.
Bernadette, we learn, was a rising star of the Los Angeles architecture scene, a pioneer of the holistic “green building movement” who won a MacArthur Grant and designed a structure — the 20-Mile House — that became legendary. We don’t learn, for a long time, why Bernadette turned her back on architecture. But it takes no special insight to see that she should be following the one thing that remains her bliss and her calling: designing buildings. The fact that she doesn’t is a neurosis, a depression, a symptom of narcissistic personality disorder; it’s whatever you want to call it. But what we see, watching Bernadette, is someone who’s been graced with everything, more or less, that a person could want: a loving family, comfort and riches, and, on top of that, a God-given talent that resulted in worldly success. She could be living the dream.
True, she and her husband relocated from L.A. to Seattle 20 years ago, when he sold his computer animation program to Microsoft. But it’s not as if she couldn’t have continued her career there. (The film never claims that she couldn’t have.) And now, her gripe — that she feels empty and hates the life around her — comes down to the fact that she’s living in a fortress of (literally) her own design yet rejects the upper-middle-class life around her. Something has blocked her; she has issues. But on some level it’s hard not to look at Bernadette and feel like her problem comes down to a form of privileged inertia. She has chosen this life, and she rejects it. We should all have such woes.
If Bernadette were a more compelling character, an electrifying fruitcake-genius, then none of the things I’m sniping about would matter much. But Linklater works in a flowing prosaic style that served him well in a journalistic comedy like “Bernie,” only here the style isn’t lyrical or crazy enough. Linklater, as brilliant a filmmaker as he is, is a kind of Zen rationalist; his shot language and essential humanity invite us to look at Bernadette and think, “You need help.” But that stops the character, even in her baroquely witty lashing out, from becoming a projection of a larger passion.
You’d think that a woman as self-centered as Bernadette might be a terrible mother, but she and Bee are quite bonded. Yet when Bee, as part of a deal she made with her parents, announces that she wants to take a family trip to Antarctica, Bernadette regards the prospect like a voyage to hell. Is it because she doesn’t want to go to such an icy, remote, forbidding place? Yes, but mostly it’s because she doesn’t want to have to spend time on a cruise ship with other people. Antarctica, however, is where she ends up; it’s as if only the coldness of that place could freeze out her anger. She goes to the ends of the earth to come back to earth. If only we felt that her inner journey was ours.