Cate Blanchett ponders her life as an affluent Seattleite in “Where’d You Go, Bernadette.” (Annapurna Pictures)

Cate Blanchett ponders her life as an affluent Seattleite in “Where’d You Go, Bernadette.” (Annapurna Pictures)

The ‘Bernadette’ shocker: Blanchett gives a subpar performance

The great actress seems ill at ease as a dissatisfied Seattle architect in this flat adaptation of a cartoonish novel.

Even though neither book nor movie stooped to putting a question mark in the title (is it really so hard to put that extra character in there?), the film version of “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” answers the implied question in its opening sequence.

There’s Cate Blanchett, as Bernadette, paddling a kayak around some Antarctic icebergs.

Even our spoiler-phobic culture won’t care too much about this giveaway, because telling us right off where Bernadette went is just one of the many puzzling things about the adaptation of Maria Semple’s bestselling novel.

When the story begins, Bernadette is living in a dilapidated Seattle mansion with her husband Elgin (Billy Crudup) and daughter Bee (Emma Nelson). Elgin is a Microsoft hotshot, and Bee is a whiz kid about to be shipped off to an East Coast prep school.

Bernadette is unhappy. She’s got reasons; the other school moms (“gnats,” she calls them) are meddling ninnies, Elgin neglects her, and she’s uptight about an upcoming family vacation to Antarctica.

Worse, she’s been separated from her vocation, architecture, for years — for reasons that will only become clear halfway through the film.

In Semple’s novel, the characters are cartoons, not helped by the book’s gimmicky structure. Director Richard Linklater, one of America’s most consistently intriguing filmmakers (most recently with “Boyhood” and “Everybody Wants Some!!”), can’t put flesh on these bones — although you can see him trying, especially with the female characters.

There are some original touches, not in the novel, that work well, including the YouTube video that catches us up on Bernadette’s history. I also liked Bernadette cutting a hole in a rug to allow a blackberry vine to grow out from beneath the floorboards — a tart image for how things keep coming back, even if you try to shut them out, as Bernadette has done for a long time.

Maybe the film’s biggest surprise is that Blanchett, that world-class actress, doesn’t seem comfortable. Bernadette has a lot of snarky dialogue, much of it directed at how much she can’t stand Seattle. She is, to be clear, a pill.

And she’s also got some interesting reasons to be bitter. This should all be a meal for Blanchett, yet the actress isn’t a great fit.

While I was watching her scenes with Kristen Wiig, who plays Bernadette’s school-mom nemesis, I couldn’t help wondering what the former “SNL” comedian could’ve done with the title role. Wiig’s blend of sarcasm and empathy might have brought this character to life.

The cast also includes Laurence Fishburne as Bernadette’s old mentor, and Zoë Chao as another meddling mom, who also happens to be Elgin’s Microsoft admin. A subplot about her character and infidelity has been cut from the movie, presumably to keep Elgin a more sympathetic character.

The story becomes especially implausible when it gets to Antarctica, but then maybe most stories do when they get to Antarctica. This movie started melting long before that point.

Would “Where’d You Go” have worked better on screen if it had pushed the wackier aspects of the material instead of its quasi-realistic approach? That question mark will have to stand.

“Where’d You Go, Bernadette” (2 stars)

A muddled adaptation of Maria Semple’s bestselling novel about a Seattle architect (Cate Blanchett) whose dissatisfactions lead her to drastic measures. Despite Richard Linklater’s sympathetic direction, the story stays flat, and the great Blanchett is surprisingly ill at ease in the title world. With Billy Crudup.

Rating: PG-13, for language, subject matter

Opening Friday: Alderwood Mall, Everett Stadium, Galaxy Monroe, Marysville, Meridian, Oak Tree, Pacific Place, Seattle 10, Thornton Place, Woodinville, Cascade Mall

Talk to us

More in Life

This image provided by Higgins Design Studio shows an open Murphy bed. (Mentis Photography/Higgins Design Studio via AP)
Pandemic-era design solution from the past: the Murphy bed

The beds that emerge from a wall to instantly transform a living room into a bedroom date from more than a century ago.

R.J. Whitlow, co-owner of 5 Rights Brewery, has recently expanded to the neighboring shop, formerly Carr's Hardware. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
County craft breweries’ past lives: hardware store, jail

Most breweries in Snohomish County operate in spaces that formerly housed something far different — from boat builders to banks.

Red apples with leaves isolated over white background. Gala apple. Top view
Everything you never wanted to know about fruit tree pollination

If your trees are blooming and not setting fruit, the most likely culprit is poor pollination.

Cryptomeria japonica “Sekkan-sugi”
Great Plant Pick: Cryptomeria japonica “Sekkan-sugi”

If you love golden foliage, the golden Japanese cedar is for you. When planted against a dark green backdrop, it shines like a beacon.

Moving eyes add interest to an antique clock. This blinking-owl clock sold for $1,900 at a Morford's auction in 2021.
These antique clocks have shifty eyes that move with time

More modern moving-eye clocks include the Kit-Cat clock, a fixture in nurseries since 1932.

Heroes.jpg: Characters in the fantasy world in “She Kills Monsters” at Red Curtain Arts Center, running Jan. 28-Feb. 13, include (front row) Erin Smith as Lilith, Katelynn Carlson as Kaliope; (middle row) Marina Pierce as Tillius, Lucy Johnson as Agnes; (back row) Daniel Hanlon as Orcus.
Music, theater and more: What’s happening in Snohomish County

Dungeons & Dragons collides with reality in “She Kills Monsters” at Red Curtain Arts Center in Marysville.

Caption: Stay-at-home parents work up to 126 hours a week. Their labor is valuable even without a paycheck.
A mother’s time is not ‘free’ — and they put in 126-hour workweeks

If you were to pay a stay-at-home mom or dad for their time, it would cost nearly $200,000 a year.

Linda Miller Nicholson from Fall City, Washington, holds up rainbow pasta she just made in the commercial kitchen at her Fall City home, Wednesday, Dec. 22, 2021.  The rainbow wall behind her is in her backyard. (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle TImes/TNS)
This King County woman’s rainbow pasta signals her values

Linda Miller Nicholson sculpts colorful noodles that reflect her personality and pro-LGBTQ+ pride.

CloZee performs during the second day of Summer Meltdown on Saturday, Aug. 3, 2019 in Darrington, Wash. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
The psychedelic fest Summer Meltdown is back — and in Monroe

The music and camping event is on for July 28-31, with a new venue along the Skykomish River.

Most Read