The 2012 book “Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” by Maria Semple, is a documentary novel in the same way that other novels would be called epistolary: though it has a bit of narration from the protagonist’s teen-age daughter, Bee, the story is told mainly through a collection of (fictional) archival materials, such as e-mails, letters, faxes, legal and medical transcripts, text messages, PDFs, and financial documents. For his film adaptation of the book, the director Richard Linklater extracts and stages the events that the documents describe, only occasionally preserving traces of Semple’s devices. The movie is at its best when those traces are most conspicuous. The rest of the time, Linklater (who co-wrote the script with Holly Gent and Vince Palmo) turns a complex story simple; worse, he turns the protagonist’s complex mind simple, and misses the chance to transcend the novel’s givens and explore their alluring implications. Its narrowed substance is virtually guaranteed by its narrow artistic preconceptions.
“Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” the movie, is the story of Bernadette Fox, a woman in her fifties who lives in Seattle with her husband, Elgin Branch (Billy Crudup), called Elgie, and their daughter, Balakrishna, called Bee (Emma Nelson), a high-school student. Bernadette struggles to get through her days. She’s somewhat agoraphobic and somewhat misanthropic. She’s contemptuous of the other parents at Bee’s school (“gnats,” she calls them), and her most meaningful daytime interaction occurs online, with Manjula, her so-called personal assistant, who is based in India. Bernadette spends much time at home, doing little; she emerges mainly to drop Bee off and pick her up, and to get into squabbles with the family’s next-door neighbor, Audrey (Kristen Wiig).
So it has been for Bernadette, apparently, for nearly twenty years. She was an acclaimed and admired architect and a MacArthur award-winner, who, after a calamity—the demolition of her best-known building by an arrogant TV star—relocated from Los Angeles to Seattle with Elgie, a visionary engineer who’d been hired by Microsoft. They moved into a large, ramshackle old house, and Bernadette withdrew from architecture and, seemingly, from society, but is deeply devoted to her family and passionately involved in raising Bee. The mother-daughter relationship is very close, all the more so because Elgie’s work involves long hours and frequent travel. Now the family, at Bee’s behest, is planning a trip to Antarctica. Meanwhile, a new series of local mishaps—and also the revelation of an unintended but major misstep on Bernadette’s part—drives Bernadette into a suddenly deeper crisis, and she takes the trip on her own, leaving Elgie and Bee to chase after her and to attempt to reckon with her needs, desires, and frustrations as, in that distinctive new environment, she rekindles her bold architectural ambitions.
“Where’d You Go, Bernadette” is the story of a woman with two big problems. One is that she has suffered a traumatic blow to her creative life; the other is mental illness. Bernadette is depicted as both a hoarder of prescription medicines and a chronic insomniac with high levels of anxiety. One of the key twists in the plot is her effort to get a powerful psychotropic drug from a local pharmacy—after which Elgie, happening to pass the storefront at that moment, finds her sprawled out on the store’s couch. As for her misanthropy, it’s explicitly linked to her abandonment of architecture, as depicted in a scene with her former mentor, Paul Jellinek (Laurence Fishburne), who tells her, point-blank, “People like you must create. If you don’t create, you will become a menace to society.”
Yet these two long-term matters converge in an apparent third one, which only briefly comes to the surface: Elgie’s blithe and industrious ignorance of Bernadette’s state of mind, his cavalier indifference to her well-being in the course of the past twenty years. 2019 is the cinematic year of callous men, as found in the horror movie “Midsommar” and the horror comedy “Ready or Not.” “Bernadette” isn’t a horror movie, but it presents a moral horror: the household is kept running, Bee is admirably maturing, and so, overlooking Bernadette’s struggles, Elgie has kept going, with a shrug, on his own high-flying arc of admiration and success.
Yet the movie elides more or less all of the substance in this backstory, leaving the central relationship of the film, the marital one, utterly opaque. Instead, Linklater foregrounds the action that precipitates Bernadette’s departure for Antarctica and the intrepid adventures of self-rediscovery that she undertakes there. The drama starts not just in media res but nearly at its end; it’s like a platform that, with so small a foundation, is supported only by tricks, by effortful effects. The main one is the energy expended by the actors, whose fervor is both impressive and depressing: the actors are forced to do the work that Linklater doesn’t devote to developing the story or characters.
The movie bursts into glory when Blanchett is front and center, not fitting Bernadette into the jigsaw puzzle of the plot but giving the character’s voice and mind free rein. Bernadette’s interactions with Manjula occur by e-mail—but Bernadette generates her own side of the correspondence by voice, pacing and strutting around at home while speaking floridly to an Alexa-like transcriber. Here, Blanchett conjures a torrent of verbal power and frenetic energy, and these grand solos do more than let Blanchett shine; they let Bernadette shine, which makes it all the more of a shame when they’re cut short and shaped to lock into the movie’s rigid plot. There’s a noteworthy montage sequence, of Bernadette’s reunion, in a café, with Paul (intercut with Elgie speaking of her to a therapist, played by Judy Greer), in which Bernadette’s inner life, embodied in Blanchett’s sharply etched voice, presses again to the fore, but only just so.
Linklater seems uneasy presenting Bernadette as possessed of any ideas at all. The character’s lack of intellectual substance parallels the movie’s simplified, straightened-out narrative. Linklater’s apparent assumptions about what a movie, or a popular movie, is—active, straightforward, plain, and untroubling—work against his protagonist, who is anything but. There’s a hint that she hasn’t shut down her aesthetic sense, when she’s shown strolling through the Seattle Central Library, designed by Rem Koolhaas. But this, too, is a mere check box of a scene, serving mainly to display her aversion to human contact, when a fan of her work recognizes her there.
Linklater is a filmmaker of moral uplift, and in his best movies (such as “Bernie,” “Everybody Wants Some!!,” “Fast Food Nation,” and even “School of Rock”) the devilish temptations remain present and alluring and even not-quite-vanquished despite his protagonists’ best efforts. “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” is a story of uplift à trois or more, and the destructive force that sets the tale in motion is even named explicitly in the course of the action: it’s the demon that takes over the creator when the creator isn’t creating. It’s a facile and reductive view of a character who, in the novel, is tormented by a force beyond creative crisis or mental illness. In Semple’s depiction, Bernadette is more than just crabby and eloquently viper-tongued; she’s possessed by a sociopolitical bitterness, as well. She’s repeatedly dismissive of what she considers Seattle’s touchy-feely liberalism; she derides local fervent Christians as “Jesus freaks”; she mocks Canadians for not recognizing “that some people are extraordinary and should be treated as such.” The book doesn’t go further in probing Bernadette’s intellectual life—her artistic ideals, her political principles, and their connection. Could she be the Howard Roark, the Randroid, the libertarian tough-it-out cowpuncher of localist architects? Linklater, had he freed up the movie’s structure, could also have freed up Bernadette’s spirit.