Richard Linklater has already proved himself a master surveyor of the rocky terrain of motherhood — think of the complexity of Patricia Arquette’s Oscar-winning performance in his Boyhood. Adapting Maria Semple’s 2012 wild, reckless bestseller seems like a logical next step on that turbulent maternal highway, given that it told the story of an architect named Bernadette Fox. She’s the winner of a MacArthur “genius” grant for creating her 20-Mile House, constructed from materials sourced within 20 miles of the home. But when a tycoon bought the place and destroyed it, a crushed Bernadette retreated to Seattle, a place she riotously despises, to live in seclusion with her Microsoft-star husband and raising their teen daughter. The author fashioned her book out of letters, emails, texts, newspaper clippings, and police reports that kicked in when Bernadette went missing.
Where did she go? That’s the book and the movie. And Linklater, who charted to perfection the chaotic course of a relationship in his landmark “Before” trilogy — 1985’s Before Sunrise, 2004’s Before Sunset, 2013’s Before Midnight — should be the ideal choice to bring the novel to the screen with all its mad, crazy-quilt exuberance in place, right?
Not so, as it turns out. Where’d You Go, Bernadette, with a timid script by Linklater, Holly Gent, and Vincent Palmo Jr., reduces the book to a pedestrian run-through that never takes flight. Cate Blanchett plays Bernadette with her customary elegance, erudition, and acerbic wit, but her heroine has had her wings clipped. The narrative bumps in the book have been sanded off: Bernadette’s husband, Elgin (Billy Crudup), a selfish cheater in Semple’s view, comes to the screen with his heart always in the right place. The snappiest scenes are between Bernadette and her daughter, Bee (a terrific Emma Nelson), Mom’s de facto best — and only — friend who’s nonetheless been kept in the dark about her mother’s past accomplishments. It’s Bee, soon off to Choate Rosemary Hall in Connecticut, who pushes her parents to take a family trip. Bee is studying Shackleton at school and thinks Antarctica, of all places, will nudge Mom out of her rut.
In truth, Bernadette is hitting the breaking point, wrangling with a snob neighbor (Kristen Wiig) who falsely accuses her of running over her foot with her car. Worse, our suburbanite on the verge of a nervous breakdown has disastrously turned over the running of her life and finances to Manjula, a virtual assistant that turns out to be something far more sinister. That’s when Elgin brings in a therapist (Judy Greer) to stage an intervention, provoking Bernadette to run for her life and leave her family behind.
The conflict comes to a head in Antarctica, where Bernadette’s family goes in pursuit of her. The trip through the dangerous seas of the Drake Passage is meant to symbolize Mom’s own surging inner journey. But Linklater’s becalmed treatment of Bernadette’s crisis never leaves a doubt of smooth sailing ahead. A father to three daughters, the director has stated he sees the film as “an intense portrait of motherhood,” and he’s simply too good at what he does not to let his soulful artistry show through. But something crucial is missing. Semple’s book is also about the damage done by a career-stifled mother — not just to herself, but to her husband, daughter, neighbors, and everyone whose lives she touched. It’s the human devastation that gets short shrift in a movie that turns the hot, hilarious, out-for-blood Bernadette into the thing she hates most: conventional.