Bernadette Fox is a complicated lady. As first explored in Maria Semple’s hit novel, "Where'd You Go, Bernadette," and now in Austin-based filmmaker Richard Linklater’s movie of the same name, Fox is a mother, an architect and a high-strung, type-A person in the best of circumstances. And she is also going through a bit of a crisis.
Money isn’t a problem (more on that in a moment), and her family’s health is good, but she struggles to keep it together.
Bee, her 13-year-old daughter (newcomer Emma Nelson), loves her but is a bit concerned, as is Bernadette's patient, adoring husband, Elgie Branch (Billy Crudup, who will never look right to me without his “Almost Famous” mustache). The family’s massive Seattle home, a former school for “wayward girls,” seems on the verge of messy collapse (or maybe this is an affectation — I remain genuinely unsure). Bernadette's neighbor, Audrey (Kristin Wiig and a mess of sweaters), can’t stand her, and our heroine's just not functioning in the world all that well.
Creativity has become a problem for Bernadette. We learn that she was once a visionary architect whose masterpiece never quite came together. As the family plans an exotic vacation, Bernadette vanishes.
From there, the film becomes almost a caper. Bee and Elgie try to find Bernadette, Bernadette tries to find herself. Throughout, Elgie and Bee, especially Bee, are convinced that Bernadette has not gone around the bend but knows exactly what she needs to do to find the spark that will reignite her creativity and therefore heal her relationships. (Perhaps.)
The beloved novel was reportedly hard to translate to the screen, and unfortunately, the struggle shows. We never entirely get a fix on either parent, and the narrative is plagued with tonal issues.
Is Fox a woman going through something powerful or something indulgent? Is Elgie a workaholic jerk (an important detail in the book) or a seemingly reasonable and supportive (if very successful) guy, as Crudup portrays him here?
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The tension between comedy and drama is never resolved completely in the film. While Linklater reports a wonderful working relationship with Blanchett, there is something almost hauntingly off about her performance here. It’s never especially dark, even though the implication is that her breakdown is on the verge of becoming dangerous.
This also feeds into the film’s most depressing problem. Because we have trouble with the film’s stakes, “Bernadette” too often seems like a catalog of Problems of the One Percent. Maybe Fox really is afflicted with issues that a generous application of money cannot solve. But her solution is impossible to imagine without said application.
Oddly, this never feels like an issue in the novel, which is a testament to Semple’s skill. On screen, it feels like the timing for something like this in popular culture couldn’t be much worse.
There is a sweetness at the film’s core, and Linklater’s skill at talent-spotting remains spectacular. Emma Nelson is a blast to watch; she lights up the screen at every turn. Bee's full-throated love for her mother is the film's beating heart.
But Linklater’s best works are his original pieces, his natural style suited for a very specific ramble: “Slacker,” “Dazed and Confused,” the incredible “Boyhood” and the “Before Sunrise” series are all hangout pictures that feel like a search for everyday satori.
It’s when Linklater must conform to something else, be it a text (“Last Flag Flying,” “Me and Orson Wells”) or a play (“Suburbia”) or history (“The Newton Boys”) that narrative seams begin to show. (The exception is “A Scanner Darkly,” which remains the most underrated Philip K. Dick adaption, largely because Linklater makes the genuinely psychedelic seem almost quotidian.)
Perhaps “Bernadette” will find its natural audience. But as the kids say, the struggle is real.