“Where’d You Go, Bernadette” makes perfect sense as a Richard Linklater movie. In fact, this half-baked and eccentric tale of a modern woman getting her groove back — adapted from Maria Semple’s decidedly uncinematic novel of the same name — might only make sense as a Richard Linklater movie.
From the maverick likes of “Slacker” and “Boyhood” to the more studio-polished fare of “School of Rock” and “Me and Orson Welles,” Austin’s most inquisitive auteur has always been drawn to shaggy little stories about creative people trying to find their way through a world that doesn’t always spread itself out into a proper canvas. For a restless iconoclast like Linklater, there’s nothing more dangerous or exciting than an artist who doesn’t know what to do with themselves. So while other directors might have balked at the idea (or the commercial prospects) of a bizarre family comedy about a rich architect whose pent-up mental energy turns her into a manic time-bomb, Linklater probably thought it was the most natural thing he could ever hope to make.
Perhaps that explains why “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” is so casual in its weirdness, and in the way the film treats its implosive heroine; this is a movie about a full-on nervous breakdown that’s shot with the bouncy uplift of a network television drama. Cate Blanchett, splitting the difference between Anna Wintour and Blanche DuBois in a big performance that still manages to sneak up on you, stars as frustrated visionary Bernadette Fox. A Genius with a capital “G” (she received a MacArthur Fellowship grant for designing an environmentally sustainable house that’s been haunting her ever since), Bernadette hasn’t worked in 20 years. Linklater’s script, co-written with usual collaborators Holly Gent and Vincent Palmo Jr., is slow to explain what caused Bernadette’s creative recession; this is, after all, a movie about someone trying to separate herself from her circumstances. Nevertheless, it’s clear that she’s not the cheery and indomitable woman she was when she first married Elgin Branch (Billy Crudup), a Microsoft exec who — in one of the movie’s several head-scratching subplots — basically invents digital telepathy like it’s no big deal.
If Elgin is the bright and cheery Jesse to Bernadette’s fraying Celine, perhaps that’s because our society makes it much harder for women to find their second acts. “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” doesn’t put too fine a point on something that should already be self-evident, but Linklater makes it clear that Bernadette chose to design her own purgatory rather than be consigned to irrelevance. These days, she’s an agoraphobic misanthrope who spends her time renovating the abandoned school her family uses as a house, terrorizing the other moms in her Monterey-esque Seattle community (embodied by a nuanced Kristen Wiig), and dictating long email soliloquies to her unseen assistant.
The loving bond that Bernadette shares with her empathic teen daughter (well-cast newcomer Emma Nelson) is basically the only thing that keeps her tethered to humanity. And so when young Bee asks her parents to take her on a trip to Antarctica, Bernadette can’t help but say yes. That’s when antipsychotics, the FBI, and even Steve Zahn get involved.
Eventually unfolding into a more relaxed, feminine riff on “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” Linklater’s film arranges itself in a convoluted fashion that might feel less clumsy if any of its characters were as complicated as the story insists they are. From start to finish — and through each of the movie’s half-dozen expositional devices — “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” is preoccupied with the complexities of the human brain. People always seem so simple from the outside, but Bee’s narration reminds us that our minds are hard-wired to be wary of novel experiences, while Elgin’s TED Talk finds him tapping into people’s innermost thoughts. At one point, Bernadette tries to do a chemistry experiment with Haldol.
“Just because you think you can’t know everything about another person,” Bee exclaims, “it doesn’t mean you can’t try!” Time after time, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” tries to frame its namesake like an unsolvable enigma — like a dormant volcano that nobody can see inside — and the slow-winding path it takes to Bernadette’s breakdown is meant to convince us that there’s more to her than meets the eye. And there is! One revelation is downright heartbreaking. But so much of this movie feels like cover fire to distract from the simple truth that Linklater sees Bernadette as little more than a constipated artist. “People like you must create,” a former mentor played by Laurence Fishburne tells her over a frantic lunch. “If you don’t create, you will become a menace to society.”
It’s too late for that. Fortunately, the solution to her problem is as proscriptive as just making something, even if she has to travel to the ends of the Earth to find someone who will offer her the chance to do that. But Blanchett, whose shredded nerve of a performance dips into “Blue Jasmine” territory during the film’s unstable second act, interprets Bernadette as a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Despite what the film might insist as it morphs into a treacly adventure tale, that’s not the kind of problem that can be solved with a blueprint — the human brain is too complicated for that.
It’s no secret that Bernadette vanishes (or escapes) halfway into the movie, even if it’s a surprise how long it takes for the movie to get there. But Linklater’s beguiling, fussy take on “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” is so focused on her final destination — on rescuing her from her artistic slump — that the plottiness of its final act dilutes the character even further. The more engaging question is where Bernadette disappeared to for the two decades before the movie begins. It may not be much of a mystery, but where Bernadette went is far more believable and broadly real a story than where she ends up. It’s a story that’s too complicated for Linklater to tell here.
Annapurna Pictures will release “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” in theaters on August 16.