Rating: (3 stars)
Spiky, passionate, fierce and broken, the titular heroine of Maria Semple’s hilarious and touching novel “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” is one of the great characters in recent literary fiction. And as a fascinatingly contradictory raw nerve capable of rare humor, insight and cruelty all at once, she’s perfect fodder for the talents of Cate Blanchett, who radiates both otherworldliness and edgy neurosis in Richard Linklater’s generously humane film adaptation.
When we meet Blanchett’s Bernadette Fox, she’s living in rainy Seattle with her Microsoft engineer husband, Elgin (Billy Crudup) and teenage daughter, Bee (newcomer Emma Nelson), banging around a decrepit, half-rehabbed former reform school, trying desperately to avoid the other moms at Bee’s school, dictating manic to-do lists to her virtual assistant in India and nurturing an obsessive hatred of her adopted hometown. From the state of her environment — falling apart but filled with ingenious design elements involving books, pencils and a chandelier that looks as if it’s been made of dog bowls — it’s clear that Bernadette, a once-famous architect, is a woman on the verge of either a breakdown or a breakthrough. When Bee suggests a family trip to Antarctica to celebrate a perfect report card, the plans threaten to send Bernadette not just to the edge of the world, but of sanity itself.
What exactly got Bernadette to this place comes into focus through monologues and a helpful explanatory video, segments of which pop up throughout the movie as needed. At first, it looks as if “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” will be a tart sendup of privileged mom culture on a par with “Big Little Lies,” especially when Blanchett goes toe-to-toe with a try-hard neighbor played by Kristen Wiig. But things aren’t what they seem in a story that is as attentive to grief, heartbreak and demolished dreams as it is to liberal bourgeois mores at their most superficial and annoyingly smug.
“Where’d You Go, Bernadette” is at its best as a character study in female ambition and motherhood, at their most passionate and ambivalent. With her steel-blade cheekbones and barbed-wire gaze, Blanchett looks like an alien plopped down beside Crudup and Nelson, whose characters test the limits of their own loyalty as Bernadette becomes more unhinged.
It’s when the plot becomes, well, plottier that “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” starts to wobble: Twists, turns and what-are-you-doing-here? contrivances that work on the page look forced and schematic on-screen, notwithstanding some stunning location photography amid the serene waters and ice-scapes of Greenland. (Linklater, working from a script he co-wrote with Holly Gent and Vince Palmo, has underemphasized the book’s multivoiced epistolary structure; unfortunately, the novel’s most cutting, on-point humor has been jettisoned in the process.)
If the family dynamics feel perfunctory and too-neatly resolved by the end of “Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” Blanchett’s nuanced portrayal of stymied creativity, exacting taste and sensibilities too bold and well-judged for an uncaring world manages to be funny and uncompromising in equal measure. In her capable hands, Bernadette Fox doesn’t wind up being likable — a quality Bernadette would surely detest — but she’s worthy of love all the same.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains some strong language and drug material. 107 minutes.