Published in 2012, Maria Semple’s comedic novel “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” spent nearly a year on the New York Times’ best-seller list and garnered various accolades for its whimsical whodunit story. Its film adaptation is essentially a carbon copy of its source, mimicking its most topical parts — with a copycat poster of the novel’s sunglasses-donning figure and a script attempting to hit the same ebullient comedic beats.
It’s unfair to base an entire film on its relationship to its source. But for a film such as this, one that very obliquely tries to capture the same essence of its predecessor down to the minute details, it’s difficult to separate out the wheat from the chaff. What results is a largely uneven adaptation that places its entire weight on its lead actress, Cate Blanchett, missing out on what made the book so appealing.
So, where does this film first go wrong? Director Richard Linklater loses much of the story’s charm in breaking down its original structure. Semple’s book is a collaged construction of the tale of Bernadette from the omniscient viewpoint of her daughter, Bee (portrayed by Emma Nelson in the film), as she gathers together evidence around her mother’s disappearance. Between emails exchanged between side characters and correspondence between Bernadette and her personal assistant, as well as more standard fare such as the he-said-she-said of neighborhood denizens, Bee constructs her own vision of what happened, leading to an epilogic final sequence that ties up the looping weave of the story.
It’s a tricky sort of book to adapt, and Linklater falls into some of the traps it lays. Because much of the book takes place in forms that are difficult to elegantly translate to the screen — like a written email or memo — these moments then become lengthy periods of forced exposition. In learning about Bernadette’s background as a celebrated architect, for example, the characters on-screen simply watch a YouTube video about Bernadette, losing any sense of nuance in the research process of discovering this character.
Bernadette, as a central figure, is also lost in the streamlining of the novel. She’s reduced here to an agoraphobic misanthrope, perceived by those around her as a social outsider with little to no purpose in life. But as the film’s plodding exposition reveals, she is a deeply accomplished person, an artist who is not being given the space to create. Though Blanchett captures Bernadette’s eccentricity and subtly buzzing creative energy, this theme of artistic purpose dissipates under the more clunky comedic overtones and attempts to squeeze in plot points.
The film also has a more sterile sheen than most of Linklater’s filmography, which leans toward a more naturalistic aesthetic, often most attuned to connections between characters. Within the tightly scripted shiny set pieces and straightforward plotline of “Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” however, many of these defining characteristics of Linklater’s work are lost, leaving a saran-wrapped gift basket of a film behind. It looks well put together, and its contents are things you’d generally like, but there’s something slightly disingenuous about the whole thing — a distance that keeps it from being truly great.
Besides Blanchett, many of the other performances fall by the wayside, lost in the mud behind Blanchett’s magnetic pull. Billy Crudup is forgettable as Elgin, Bernadette’s Microsoftian tech savant husband, who is perennially decked out in shiny workout gear and seems to know nothing about his wife. Kristen Wiig is also somehow blandly cast in her role as a tightly wound Seattle housewife, given little to do besides the sight gag of wearing some questionable sweaters. Typical on-screen powerhouses, including Laurence Fishburne and Megan Mullally, are reduced to talking head roles here, appearing in brief flashes with little style or substance.
There’s likely a good movie somewhere in here, and various production hiccups — including a switch in the writing team and multiple release pushbacks — suggest internal issues that may have contributed to the uneven end product. But as it stands, it’s an incomplete adaptation of a better book, only buoyed by the strength of its lead actress.
Contact Camryn Bell at [email protected].