Sometimes idiosyncratic directors do surprisingly accessible and moving work when paired with more structured material and a strong and willing star, and so it is with Richard Linklater and “Where’d You Go, Bernadette.”
Best known for meandering personal explorations like “Boyhood” and “Before Sunset,” Linklater from time to time takes on more focused stories like the comic success “School of Rock,” which starred an unstoppable Jack Black.
In “Bernadette,” Linklater brings his manifest empathy for character to Maria Semple’s smart and funny bestselling novel, with a splendid performance by Cate Blanchett in the title role added into the mix.
The film is not without its problems, but its focus on the power of a mother-daughter bond and what can befall creative people when they no longer create generates considerable emotion by the close.
Its bestselling status notwithstanding, as a modern day epistolary novel encompassing items like emails, invoices, police reports and school memos, “Bernadette” must have been a challenging book to adapt in film terms.
Linklater, who dedicates the movie to his late mother, Diane, “my Bernadette,” was clearly drawn to the material and, co-writing with frequent collaborators Holly Gent and Vince Palmo, made it happen.
In this he was helped enormously by Blanchett, attached to the project before the director got involved. She burns up the airwaves as Bernadette Fox, a wonderfully eccentric, wildly verbal individual who both talks and thinks on a different level than everyone else.
When we first meet Bernadette, in the kitchen of her house in Seattle, she and her husband, Elgie (Billy Crudup), and precocious teenage daughter, Bee (newcomer Emma Nelson just nailing it), seem like the perfect modern family.
Here’s Bee, all glee and enthusiasm, telling her parents that what she wants as a long-ago-promised reward for great grades is a family trip to Antarctica.
Yes, the response from the adults is muted, but there could be lots of reasons for that. But the key one, as it turns out, is that Bernadette has a problem with people. She doesn’t like to be around them and their “incessant yammering and boring small talk,” not even a little bit.
Bernadette especially doesn’t like living in Seattle, and the visual symbol of her detachment is the pair of dark glasses she always wears. (Blanchett is so into the material that when Semple gave the actress her personal pair as a keepsake, she insisted on wearing them in the movie.)
With Elgie off being a deep thinker at Microsoft all day (brain-computer interface is his specialty), Bernadette has bonded with her daughter, forming a wonderfully conspiratorial us-against-the world connection with Bee that is fun to eavesdrop on.
The two of them even adore living in their beyond enormous, falling-down, one-of-a-kind house, the former Straight Gate School for Girls, a fixer-upper that never got fixed and never will.
Aside from her family, the person Bernadette is closest to is someone she’s never met. That would be Manjula, her India-based virtual personal assistant who finds no task too daunting, including some tasks, as the story progresses, that would have been better left undone.
Like any good heroine, Bernadette also has a bête noir, officious neighbor Audrey (an expert Kristin Wiig), who lives and dies for the sensitive Galer Street School and its goal of “global connectitude” and who is always on the lookout for “the right kind of kindergarten family.”
It’s Audrey’s insistence that Bernadette get serious about containing the out-of-control blackberry bushes that threaten to overrun her home that gets things rolling plot-wise, but that turns out to be the merest beginning of a whole string of antic and unexpected events.
While this sprightly material is expertly and entertainingly presented, “Bernadette” is not as deft when the plot turns more serious and Elgie begins to genuinely worry about his wife’s mental health.
Though it’s key to the novel, the way that situation is presented feels all wrong in movie terms. The kind of endearing eccentric Bernadette epitomizes has been celebrated in films since forever (1938’s Oscar-winning “You Can’t Take It With You” is an early example), and that makes this kind of tut-tutting, especially from her husband, hard to buy into.
Given the film’s title, it’s no spoiler to say that at one point Bernadette flat out disappears, but in some ways, as we find out, she’s been in flight from aspects of her life for quite some time.
With Blanchett’s unflagging help, the questions of finding out who Bernadette has been and who she might yet become pull the film out of the doldrums and give it a strong and moving close. A character this compelling deserves nothing less.
Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes
Playing: In general release