If ever a movie had a recipe for success, it’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette. Based on Maria Semple’s best-selling novel, it stars the great Cate Blanchett with Richard Linklater directing. So why did I leave the theater feeling dissatisfied, as if something was missing?
When we meet Bernadette (Blanchett) she is manic and out of control: openly hostile to almost everyone she encounters. She’s growing apart from her husband (Billy Crudup) and railing against life in Seattle, where she moved to escape Los Angeles. The only person she can relate to is her teenage daughter (nicely played by newcomer Emma Nelson). Over the course of the film we learn that she was a brilliant architect who won a MacArthur “genius grant” and was embarking on a life rich in possibilities. Something went wrong along the way.
This is what’s missing in the screenplay that Linklater wrote with longtime colleagues Holly Gent and Vincent Palmo, Jr. We never actually see why or how Bernadette lost her way. We learn the bullet points in flashbacks, but showing is always more effective than telling.
Some of the character’s rants are bitterly amusing, especially when she locks horns with a pretentious neighbor (Kristen Wiig). But if it were anyone less charismatic than Blanchett in the role I would have lost patience with such an off-putting protagonist.
The story ultimately heads in a wildly unexpected direction. This, too, is interesting but somehow unsatisfying. Bernadette’s odyssey ought to be much more compelling than it is. One can’t fault the cast, which also includes Judy Greer, Steve Zahn, Laurence Fishburne, and Kate Burton, or the handsome look of the film, shot by Shane F. Kelly with production design by Bruce Curtis.
Semple’s novel is told in epistolary fashion, so perhaps it was never meant to be a movie. A good many talented people tried to make this adaptation work, but sad to say, it falls short of the mark. Like its main character, Where’d You Go, Bernadette is hard to embrace.