Richard Linklater managed to get his hands on best-selling source material (the book, by Maria Semple, spent a year on the New York Times bestseller list) and systematically removed everything that was good and charming and unique about the novel to produce a bland and facile piece of film.
In the book, Bernadette is a reclusive but loving mother who suddenly disappears. Her husband and daughter believe her to be dead. Her teenage daughter Bee more or less narrates the story, mostly told through uncovered documents of her mother’s, piecing together her mother’s life, and discovering hidden depths and wells of sorrow. In the film, Bernadette’s whereabouts are never in question – we witness her escape and follow her on her adventure and see things through her eyes. You can hardly blame Linklater for this transition; with Cate Blanchett in the role, it would feel almost sacrilegious not to. But it does change the nature and structure of the story significantly, not to mention negates the mystery completely.
But that’s hardly the film’s only problem. I mean, the characters are just not likable. Bernadette, of course, is not meant to be likable – she has retreated from society, she burned out on humanity and doesn’t suffer fools, or many non-fools either. But her husband (Billy Crudup) is a workaholic, disloyal asshole. Her neighbour (Kristen Wiig) is an entitled twat. Her assistant is a scam artist. His assistant is a homewrecker and a gossip. Their therapist (Judy Greer) is an unprofessional over-stepper. It’s an unrelenting parade of unappealing characters, the only bright spot daughter Bee (Emma Nelson) and we’ve already discussed how Linklater chose to shine the spotlight elsewhere. Oof. But only a few of these characters are without sympathy. Mostly the problem is that Linklater never takes a stance. His indecision is stamped all over this movie. He clearly wasn’t up to making the book spark on screen so he neutered it, shot it very conventionally, and then acted surprised when no one was overly impressed by his mess.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette is actually about what happens to a creative genius when she stops creating. That’s the core theme in the book: Bernadette lost her creative outlet and just started wilting. But in the movie, she just comes off as a crazy lady who has a mental breakdown and then flees to Antarctica on some hair-brained mission. And her husband makes so many poor decisions you just wish someone would throw him overboard and give the narwhals a hearty lunch.
The only thing that remotely saves the movie is Cate Blanchett, who is luminous and quirky and vibrant, doing much of the heavy lifting that realistically, both Linklater and a solid script should have done for her (and frankly, for us). She is a delight to watch but you never shake the feeling that this film should be so much more than it is – and that’s true even if you haven’t read the book and you aren’t watching it next to me, a person who is loudly bemoaning the very substandard adaptation. Where’d You Go, Bernadette is sadly lost in translation.