Movie Review: “Where’d You Go, Bernadette”

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Richard Linklater’s film of “Where’d You Go Bernadette” may offer the great Cate Blanchett a star vehicle she can sink her incisors into. But rather than a meaty meal, it’s a gooey goulash of randomly expressed “feels.”

How convenient of the culture to invent a bit of slang that trivializes and diminishes “feelings” and the search for sentiment, just for this misshapen, unevenly-acted, ineptly-edited star vehicle.

It’s narrated by the heroine’s borderline-insufferable 14 year-old daughter (newcomer Emma Nelson), who warns us that it’s about her mother, Bernadette, who “forgot to see all the good stuff in her life.”

From the mouths of babes, right?

Except the child, “Bee Branch” she is called (short for Balashram, I think) is a classic “unreliable narrator.” Whatever she is in sitcom writer (“Mad About You,” “Arrested Development”) turned novelist Maria Semple’s book, in the film she’s why we don’t let teens serve as psychotherapists.

“The good stuff,” for Mom, is a near-ruined former girl’s reformatory that she and her Microsoft innovator husband (Billy Crudup) have bought and not done nearly enough to convert into a home. It is leaking, a REAL issue in Seattle, and generally falling apart. Hilltop property it may be, but it’s overrun with blackberry brambles, which runs Bernadette afoul of her hyper-involved, committee-forming neighbor (Kristen Wiig, terrific).

The posh Galer Street School where all concerned send their kids may teach Kindergarteners African folk songs to sing for school assemblies, and Bee Branch has mastered the bamboo flute to accompany them. But it’s all Bernadette can do to drop her doted-upon child off at the entrance without getting into a snit with some other lady or privilege there.

Teachers, other parents, she sneers at them all behind her Jackie O. sunglasses and Jaguar steering wheel. Bernadette is a poster child for “misanthropist.”

She’s a manic “design” obsessed insomniac who piles all her prescriptions into a single jar for its aesthetics, who tries to organize her life via an Indian virtual online assistant, “Manjula,” to whom she dictates tirades, confessionals, requests and commands — get me a sign for this, order me a fishing vest, make travel arrangements for three to Antarctica.

Did I mention that this is their little darling’s new-formed heart’s desire for winter break? A family vacation “before the whole thing melts?”

The movie is about the disasters this request sets in motion, even if the child never acknowledges that the apple of Mom’s eye was the one who triggered her.

A Youtube documentary fills in, for Bee Branch and for a curious Bernadette, who Mom “used to be” — an architect, respected by peers (David Paymer, Megan Mullally), revered by her mentor (Laurence Fishburne), a MacArthur Genius Grant winner who…just…stopped.

“Where’d You Go Bernadette” peels away layers of what put our heroine in her current funk, doubles down on her troubles (James Urbaniak plays an unlikely F.B.I. agent) and spitballs a “solution” (Judy Greer is a therapist who diagnoses her, sight-unseen).

All we can be sure of is that at some point, Bernadette will “go.” Eventually. Later. How long IS this damned thing, anyway?

You can love most everybody on a film — “Boyhood” director included — and still cringe at the accident unfolding on the screen before you.

Characters never quite hit “caricature,” but rational behavior and relationships that should have a softening or hardening arc simply change on a dime.

Blanchett takes Bernadette into the darkness and over-the-top, but only her tastiest tirades about neighbor “Audrey and her Flying Monkeys” are funny, only her pithiest commands — “Go. DO. Be!” — have the potential to tickle.

Because Jesus, Mary and Joseph, this is the talkiest, most exposition-heavy “comedy” I’ve seen in ages. I was expecting something maybe a little “Secret Life of Walter Mitty” or “Hector and the Search for Happiness” — flawed films where at least the “feels” feels good.

But no.

Crudup, at times, seems to be on the verge of slipping into smirks, as if he’s TED talking himself into a different movie.

Wiig, at least, is on the same page with the tale’s original intent, and her scenes with Blanchett have a nice snap. Greer is wasted in a bland part, a good part is somewhat wasted on the bland Miss Nelson and the whole third act requires more exposition as it gives the movie its abrupt “purpose” and still hath not a laugh in it.

1half-star

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some strong language and drug material

Cast: Cate Blanchett, Kristen Wiig, Billy Crudup, Emma Nelson, Laurence Fishburne, Judy Greer, James Urbaniak, David Paymer and Megan Mullally.

Credits: Directed by Richard Linklater, script by Holly Gent, Richard Linklater, Vincent Palmo Jr., based on the Maria Semple novel. An Annapurna/United Artists release.

Running time: 1:48

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