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'Bernadette' Is A Stirring Tribute To A Woman Rediscovering Her True Calling

Cate Blanchett stars as Bernadette Fox, a once-legendary architect who hasn't built anything in decades, in <em>Where'd You Go, Bernadette.</em>
Wilson Webb
Annapurna Pictures
Cate Blanchett stars as Bernadette Fox, a once-legendary architect who hasn't built anything in decades, in Where'd You Go, Bernadette.

The writer-director Richard Linklaterhas said that he cast Cate Blanchett in his new comedy, Where'd You Go, Bernadette, because, in his words, "only a genius can portray a genius believably."

Whether you agree with that or not, it's hard to deny that Blanchett was the right genius for the role of Bernadette Fox, the central character in this delightful and eccentric adaptation of Maria Semple's 2012 novel. Notably, this is the first Linklater movie to feature a solo female lead, and Bernadette instantly emerges as one of the most vibrant and complex characters in the director's filmography.

Bernadette is a brilliant, legendary architect who once designed an eco-friendly modernist home built completely from materials sourced within a 20-mile radius. But that was two decades ago, before she hit a major slump, and she hasn't created anything since. Now she lives in Seattle, in an enormous ramshackle house with her husband, Elgie, and their teenage daughter, Bee.

Their life together seems chaotic but reasonably happy at first. Billy Crudup makes a nice voice of sanity as Elgie, a Microsoft tech visionary who helps keep his wife grounded. Bee, played by a winning newcomer named Emma Nelson, is plucky and smart, and she has managed to talk her parents into going on a family vacation to Antarctica before she departs for an elite boarding school.

But all is not well with Bernadette, who loves her family but can't stand anyone else. Sporting a brown bob, she likes to hide behind dark sunglasses and look the other way when she's approached by adoring fans or local busybodies — like her overbearing neighborhood nemesis, Audrey, played by a terrific Kristen Wiig.

In addition to her antisocial streak, Bernadette suffers severe anxiety attacks and may or may not be hooked on prescription meds. Blanchett gives a splendidly mercurial performance: At times Bernadette's nerves are so raw and exposed that she might remind you of the desperately neurotic widow the actress played — and won an Oscar for — in Blue Jasmine.

The script, which Linklater wrote with Holly Gent and Vincent Palmo Jr., has a shambling but tightly plotted structure that keeps throwing you off-balance. Bernadette can be acerbic, tender, charming and maddening, sometimes all at once, and it's both funny and painful to watch Blanchett strip away the character's psychological defenses, layer by fragile layer.

As singular as Bernadette is, she feels distantly related to all the marginalized misfits and wayward souls Linklater has gravitated toward in movies as different as Slacker and School of Rock. The director also has an instinctive affection for artists, and you can feel his sympathy and his respect for Bernadette surging through every scene. She may be a misanthrope, but she's a misanthrope you can't help but love, whether she's launching into one anguished verbal aria after another or dictating lengthy, punctuation-free emails to her virtual personal assistant.

Some of those devices come straight from the novel, which was written in an epistolary format, its story pieced together from letters, emails and other documents. The movie is more conventionally constructed, and in some ways it feels like a lark for Linklater — a zippy, lightweight diversion compared with the more audacious dramatic experiments of Boyhoodand the romantic trilogy that began with Before Sunrise. But in its own way, this story is also about the passage of time, the way life can thwart an artist's hopes and dreams.

The title of Where'd You Go, Bernadette asks what happened to the brilliant creative force Bernadette used to be. But it also takes on a more literal meaning when she escapes an intervention that her husband, concerned about her increasingly erratic behavior, has arranged. Bernadette goes on that trip to Antarctica by herself, and Elgie and Bee chase after her; much beautifully controlled chaos ensues. The third act sends the characters through a whirlwind of farcical twists and emotional reckonings, but it also becomes a genuinely stirring tribute to a woman rediscovering her true calling in the unlikeliest place imaginable. The gorgeous polar scenery becomes a chilly backdrop for one of the sweetest movie endings I've seen this year.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.