You can blame this review on Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock is the one long-dead filmmaker whom just about nobody thinks is either from the olden days or out of date. One reason that many people continue to watch such Hitchcock films as The Birds, Psycho, Vertigo, or Rear Window is that Hitchcock always knew that story must be visual. Characters must not tell the story or describe who they are. They should be the story. Hitchcock characters do what they do – and what they don’t do is tell the audience what’s going on. It’s up to the filmmaker to shape what characters say and do into a story for the audience to understand.
In Where’d You Go, Bernadette, director and co-writer Richard Linklater has missed Hitchcock’s lesson. He builds his story out of talk, but not with the essential visual images. Bernadette (Cate Blanchett) is an unhappy housewife in Seattle. With a husband too much engaged in his job at Microsoft, Bernadette spends her time getting angry at the resolutely conventional neighbors or anyone else who crosses her path. And she’s a ranter.
Bernadette has a past that slowly emerges. She was an architect; she won a MacArthur Foundation genius award. Yet for reasons not shown soon enough, she hasn’t designed anything in 20 years. But she dearly loves her young teenaged daughter Bee (the new to film Emma Nelson), and when Bee says that she wants the whole family to take a trip to the Antarctic, Kate’s depression, anger and fear of open spaces kicks in and she’s soon a mess.
Director Richard Linklater, whose work includes Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise and Boyhood is, as always, full of compassion and good intentions, but that’s not going to get this movie off the ground. Where’d You Go, Bernadette, has nothing to show. Its characters talking about themselves, as if they were there to comment on a story that isn’t quite happening. Linklater puts Bernadette and her husband Elgie (Billy Crudup) in the kitchen – and they talk; late in the movie, they’re in the Antarctic – and they talk. In a non-descript restaurant with her friend Paul (Laurence Fishburne), they talk.
To go back to Hitchcock, if he puts two or three characters somewhere – anywhere – what you see is crucial. It’s not just where people talk about themselves and tell the audience what’s happening. In Rear Window, James Stewart and Grace Kelly may discuss their stalled relationship, but right beside them are the windows that Stewart is addicted to, and he’s in a cast from the waist down, so you see how stifled he is.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette takes place in pleasant surroundings, but not a one of its images puts you on edge or gets you to see what can never be in dialogue.
The talk itself can be lame. The characters never quite make you think they could be people. They’re more like concepts or principles or plot elements. The idea the movie works on is a picture of mental illness that’s kinder, gentler and more accurate than what the movies – and many people – like to imagine. The picture that does emerge, though, is like a Readers Digest condensed version of any human actuality. It’s quick and facile and jumbled. This is somewhat unfair, but the movie reminded me of City Slickers, the 1991 movie in which Billy Crystal goes on a cattle drive and gets his smile back.