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