Not a screwball comedy or inspirational tale of creativity unleashed but trying to be both those things and more, Richard Linklater’s lackluster adaptation of Maria Semple’s bestselling novel “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?” is a late, dull entry in a louder-than-usual summer movie season that truly needed something special, warm, and human-scale. Try as the filmmakers do to conjure a restorative kind of magic in its searching, yearning storyline of renewal, they are not able to come up with much more than a limping comedy about a woman with all-too-easily-explained mental issues.
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Once upon a time, Bernadette (played with a flinty anxiety by Cate Blanchett) was a rising ingenue in the architecture world, with a knack for quirky science-fiction designs and looking dazzling in old photographs (the bangs and artfully dangled cigarettes help). Her career was then sidetracked by a catastrophe that the movie withholds until far too late in the process. By the time we catch up with her, she has become a fierce recluse. Living in a damp and vine-riddled hilltop Seattle manse that she keeps up like some horticulturally-minded relative of the Addams Family, Bernadette does her best to avoid humans excepting her exceptionally patient husband Elgin (Billy Crudup) and wildly optimistic daughter Bee (Emma Nelson). Though at times her contact with them is fleeting at best.
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The first segment of “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?” is primarily a litany of her quirks—which range from deputizing an assistant in India to handle most of the details of her life, to ranting about urban design in Seattle, berating the other mothers at Bee’s snooty high school, and erecting a massive “NO TRESPASSING” sign just to complete her cranky loner persona. All of this is played out against a quickly approaching family trip to Antarctica, a graduation present for Bee that quickly becomes a looming anxiety bomb for her agoraphobic insomniac mother.
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The problems with the movie become apparent very quickly. First, there is the both under- and overwritten script (by Linklater, Holly Gent, and Vince Palmo), which saddles the story with a welter of hard-to-buy narrative wrinkles and overexplains them via Bee’s all-too-chirpy voiceover. While more voiceover would not have been the best idea, though, it might have been an improvement over the movie’s offloading of backstory duties to a gratingly cheesy YouTube documentary that Bernadette conveniently discovers.
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The second key issue is Linklater’s handling of mood. As a director, he has always been at his best when locking into a powerfully felt sensation early on in a movie, whether it was surrealist dream-state (“Waking Life”), resonant nostalgia (“Dazed and Confused”), or over-the-moon angsty romance (the “Before” trilogy). His less successful efforts have been those like “The Newton Boys” or “Last Flag Flying” which seemed less sincere and more imitative, without a strong core. There is no indication in “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?” that Linklater has a sure hand on what kind of mood he is trying to signal. The tone skitters all over, from lighthearted hijinks to tearjerker to introspective character study, leaving Blanchett and Crudup (along with some solid supporting players like Kristen Wiig and Laurence Fishburne) to juggle as well as they can.
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That lack of focus then exacerbates the story’s unfortunate tendency to keep setting up seemingly implacable problems that include everything from potential suicide to identify theft and the Russian Mafia, only to swat them away with dismissive ease. Even though Bernadette appears to have been living for the past two decades as a borderline paranoid depressive, that fact has apparently not been noticed by her family until now. So, when an intervention is finally cobbled together, it’s done so in such an unbelievable manner that Bernadette’s dramatic escape (played for either pathos or comedy, it’s difficult to tell) barely registers. Further negating the impact of her mental trauma on Bernadette, her family, and their neighbors (the latter portrayed as obnoxiously snarky Whole Foods one-percenters who may as well be stand-ins for the uptight adults from “School of Rock”), the movie strongly suggests that it is all the fault of her blocked creativity.
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There are a number of moments in “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?” that come close to registering the kind of impact that the filmmakers were going for. But most of those fall in the final section, where Antarctica’s breathtaking backdrop cannot help but overwhelm the twee comedic “will she ever build again?” melodrama being played out in front of it. [C-]