“Where’d You Go, Bernadette” (2019) keeps taking its title character (Cate Blanchett) to wetter and wetter places. In Richard Linklater’s newest project, based on Maria Semple’s 2012 novel of the same name, the reclusive Bernadette Fox finds herself retreating from Los Angeles to Seattle to Antarctica, seeking both a greater sense of unity with the spaces she occupies and a break from the tedious pleasantries of everyday social interaction. But as she finds her footing and learns to swim rather than have her sense of self washed away, Linklater loses his grip on Bernadette’s journey. The perils of adaptation spell doom for “Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” leaving the film with a halfhearted sense of reductiveness.
Linklater’s film deviates from Semple’s novel, including a softening of her husband’s character and a shift from the perspective of Bernadette’s daughter Bee (Emma Nelson) to that of Bernadette herself. On the whole, however, the plot is the same: Bernadette, a MacArthur Grant-winning architect, has abandoned her practice for years and withdrawn to a hermit-like existence in the semi-derelict Seattle mansion she shares with her hotshot Microsoft-employed husband Elgin (Billy Crudup).
Outside of her beloved daughter, Bernadette’s chief day-to-day concerns include avoiding people whenever possible, delegating all of her personal matters to an India-based assistant named Manjula and antagonizing the busybody PTA moms at her daughter’s school, particularly their leader, Bernadette’s next-door neighbor Audrey (Kristen Wiig).
We learn through a series of cringe-inducing sequences depicting Bee watching a documentary that the formerly Los Angeles-based Bernadette was once a force to be reckoned with in architecture circles, but that she suffered a breakdown after her passion project (a house constructed entirely from locally-sourced materials) was purchased and demolished by a greedy Hollywood B-lister.
When Elgin’s concerns about Bernadette’s mental health lead him to stage an intervention, Bernadette skedaddles — predictably — through a bathroom window, leaving Elgin and Bee to venture out and find her.
There is not a single, overarching flaw in “Where’d You Go, Bernadette.” Rather, a series of smaller disappointments accumulates, from a litany of groan-inducing lines to odd jumps in tone, to an unbearably clunky thread of expository narration (with cameos from Megan Mullally and Steve Zahn) that rears its unwelcome head multiple times throughout the film. Considered together, these result in a mulligan of a film for the visionary director of “Boyhood” (2014) and “Before Sunrise” (1995).
A movie seemingly so perfunctorily produced comes as a surprise for Linklater, who has rather quietly established himself as a veritable auteur but rarely earns mention alongside the Spike Lees, Wes Andersons and Sofia Coppolas of the film industry. Yet, by-the-numbers unfortunately feels like the most appropriate descriptor for “Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” which, amidst repeated delays, bypassed the festival circuit for a somewhat under-the-radar August release.
As “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” is still a Richard Linklater film starring Cate Blanchett and Billy Crudup, it never crosses into the category of unwatchable. The film certainly has its rare moments — Laurence Fishburne’s appearance as an old architect acquaintance of Bernadette and its consideration of the mental necessities of an artist, for example, tells us that there was a great film buried somewhere in the script. Cate Blanchett channels a similar energy to what won her an Oscar in “Blue Jasmine” (2013), but the script is largely beneath her capabilities.
In a film so concerned with architecture, production designer Bruce Curtis also deserves special recognition not only for his gorgeous rendering of Bernadette’s work, but also for the brilliant manner in which he melds the ravages of Bernadette’s mental state with her artistic philosophy. In the spaces she occupies (particularly the home she rarely leaves), Curtis and his team give the natural balance she strives for in her art leeway to rot and infest the space, making for something truly striking.
Despite this artistic symbolism and Blanchett’s expertly lived-in performance, however, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” ultimately falls into a familiar trap for novel adaptations: Its script reduces her nuanced inner struggles to broad strokes, turning Semple’s carefully curated perspective for Bernadette into a clichéd misanthropy. At his best, Linklater is a filmmaker of profound empathy and originality, but with “Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” he gives us a distinctly cold film replete with beats that we’ve all seen before.