Richard Linklater’s adaptation of Where’d You Go, Bernadette drops the epistolary technique of Maria Semple’s book in favor of a more straightforward movie narrative, but this is still a muddled puzzle of incongruous pieces that don’t fit together.
As Bernadette, Cate Blanchett is hyper-competent, precise, and a bit bloodless. A brilliant architect whose creativity was stemmed early in her career, Bernadette is now dedicated to raising her daughter Bee (Emma Branch), tinkering with the crumbling mansion she inhabits with her workaholic tech-bro husband Elgie (Billy Crudup), and irritating her uptight neighbor Audrey (Kristen Wiig, speaking of “where’d you go…”).
Her main problem seems to be that she’s so rich that she doesn’t need to work, so it’s a bit tough to muster much sympathy for distracted, dysfunctional Bernadette.
Sympathy isn't the point of this story, to be sure, but Linklater’s laid-back, generous style—ordinarily such a balm—doesn’t do Bernadette any favors. He injects no bite into Semple's social satire and no suspense into the movie's third-act mystery of Bernadette’s disappearance.
Instead, Linklater wields a gentle, wise understanding of the characters and asks us to forgive their flaws—but that’s a tough task, seeing as how they’re all phenomenally wealthy, self-centered geniuses who saunter through an unreal world of privilege and ennui, spouting perfectly grammatical lines that sound plucked straight out of the novel.
There are some good moments. A particularly nasty argument between Bernadette and Audrey becomes the movie’s fiery centerpiece, and the loving, meditative way Linklater films Bernadette’s trip to Antarctica (actually shot in Greenland) hints that he’s probably got a great ecological movie in him. But Bernadette still feels shapeless and flat, with soft-toothed jokes and head-scratching plot developments. Ultimately, Linklater’s kindness shows through—but the last thing a person like Bernadette needs is for someone to be nice to her.