Where’d You Go, Bernadette is an inspiring comedy about Bernadette Fox (Academy Award winner Cate Blanchett) a loving mom who becomes compelled to reconnect with her creative passions after years of sacrificing herself for her family. Bernadette’s leap of faith takes her on an epic adventure that jump-starts her life and leads to her triumphant rediscovery.
Richard Linklater wouldn’t be much good at what TV writers call “breaking” a story i.e., turning a premise into a blueprint, a series of firm narrative beats. He’s a deceptively crafty director (he fakes naturalism beautifully in movies like Dazed and Confused before Sunrise and Boyhood) but he can’t find a suitable form for Maria Semple’s patchwork bestseller about a misanthropic, malcontented ex-architect named Bernadette (played onscreen by Cate Blanchett) who vanishes from her ramshackle Seattle manse after an escalating series of crises and tantrums. Semple (the daughter of the late TV and film writer Lovrenzo Semple Jr.) largely writes from the point of view of Bernadette’s teenage daughter, Bee, who’s busy poring over fragments of her missing mother’s life: rambling messages from Bernadette to her “virtual” assistant in India; emails about Bernadette between two disapproving mothers of students at Bee’s progressive school; earnest letters from psychiatrists and FBI agents and mentors from Bernadette’s past. It’s only late in the book that Bee gets a hunch where her mother might have gone, and the revelation is a doozy.
I haven’t because the opening of the movie of Where’d You Go, Bernadette features Bernadette on a kayak amid ice floes while Bee (Emma Nelson) reads a passage from Semple’s book that doesn’t fit those images particularly well. Then the movie jumps back three weeks to show how Bernadette got there, to the edge of the world. Instead of a mystery from the perspective of a bereft daughter, we get a series of dramatic nonsequiturs in which Blanchett’s Bernadette takes up the entire foreground. Blanchett’s face holds the screen — she’s a real movie star and it’s fun to see her swooping around Seattle behind giant sunglasses, running from people in a cartoon panic or staying and dropping zingers. But it’s a showy, external performance, and much of the time you don’t know how you’re supposed to feel about the character. (Bernadette hates everyone, but then almost everyone is hateful, including Bernadette.)