Watching Cate Blanchett going slowly bonkers in Where’d You Go, Bernadette, I was surprised to hear the audience giggling.
Why, I wondered, were more people not concerned she was on her way to a total Blue Jasmine meltdown, about to lose all her wealth and privilege to mental illness, and end up feeding pigeons and mumbling to herself on a park bench, as the camera dollies back to look on from a more respectful and pitying distance?
Gradually I began to deduce that most folks in the audience had read the source material — Maria Semple’s amusing, best-selling novel — and were attuned to its sense of humor, and to the contours of a story that spared its characters the worst.
Blanchett has the title role as a brilliant-but-blocked architect who never psychologically recovered from having her most celebrated dream home creation bulldozed by a billionaire philistine who replaced it with a McMansion.
Now she’s living near Seattle, trying to settle into life as a stay-at-home mother — reluctant combatant in suburban mommy wars instigated by her competitive busybody neighbor (Kristen Wiig), who has anointed herself protector of private community standards, and more or less runs the middle school attended by Bernadette’s daughter Bee (Emma Nelson).
Bee is bright and artistic and takes after her mother, and is nervously awaiting word from the prestigious boarding school she has applied to attend. She’s also a bit alarmed at mom’s increasingly eccentric behavior, which has led Bernadette’s wealthy software genius husband (Billy Crudup) to consider bringing in professional help (Judy Greer).
Private schools and plutocrats are not familiar territory for director Richard Linklater, cinema’s poet laureate of the common man, and you can feel a certain awkwardness at work here, a mismatch of material and filmmaker, which contributes to an uncertain tone.
This continues to haunt the movie as it addresses the titular question — Bernadette goes missing, and the family mounts a desperate search, built around Bee’s intuitive belief in her mother’s sanity and soundness, a profound connection that accounts for the movie’s best moments.
Linklater is a naturally empathetic filmmaker, and you can feel him trying to find something he can latch onto in the Desperate Housewives cat-fighting that dominates the movie in the early going. He’s helped ultimately by the story, and by the performances of Blanchett and Wiig, who are given room to embellish their characters and relationships.
Not even Linklater, though, can do much about the way the movie has been marketed, which seems to have been done with maximum spoilers in mind, so if you haven’t read the book and you plan to see the movie, by all means avoid the trailers.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette. Directed by Richard Linklater. With Cate Blanchett, Emma Nelson, Billy Crudup, Kristen Wiig and Judy Greer. Distributed by Annapurna.
Running time: 2 hours, 10 mins.
Parents guide: PG-13 (some strong language and drug material)