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'Where'd You Go, Bernadette' ventures in interesting directions

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Expectations are rarely a film's best friend. When I saw a trailer advertising "Where'd You Go, Bernadette," I scratched my head. Isn't this the adaptation of Maria Semple's bestselling novel, in which the title character pulls a vanishing act on her family? So why is this trailer emphatically spoiling that mystery by revealing her hideout?

As it turns out, the film itself pulls the same trick on the audience, even faster than the trailer does. In the opening moments, we see where Bernadette went, then flashback to find out how and why she got there. It's a tactic guaranteed to tick off the majority of the novel's fans (although they know the ending anyway). Those who are arrive at the film with preconceptions in check, because they haven't read the novel -- or agree to take this new version of the story on its own terms -- may find there's much to appreciate in director Richard Linklater's take on the material.

For starters, Linklater enlisted Cate Blanchett to star as Bernadette Fox, a celebrated architect weighed down by a two-decade slump. The retired Bernadette has more or less succumbed to the very suburban ennui she sought to deconstruct through her art. When not troubleshooting her relationships with her husband, Elgin Branch (Billy Crudup), and daughter Bee (Emma Nelson), Bernadette tinkers with her ramshackle Seattle-area house, a fixer-upper project that seems destined to remain unfinished. Our manic, insomniac hero slips deeper into her own isolation until a sudden crisis prompts Elgin to stage an intervention and, one open bathroom window later, Bernadette's in the wind.

Linklater ("Boyhood") and co-screenwriters Holly Gent and Vincent Palmo Jr. (Linklater's "Me and Orson Welles") necessarily abandon Semple's uncinematic epistolary format: without rewriting the story, they reconfigure the plot. In doing so, they allow for a whimsical and eccentric character study about the artistic personality. It's a personality type that's arguably necessarily selfish since it resists playing by the -- and here's that pesky word again -- expectations of conventional society. Naturally, Linklater proves sympathetic to Bernadette, but he never shies from how difficult she can be to live with: While her daughter unconditionally loves her, Bernadette's husband more so tolerates her, and her acquaintances -- embodied in Kristen Wiig's exasperated, exasperating neighbor and fellow parent -- loathe her.

Linklater's approach maximizes his movie star: If you have Cate Blanchett fully on board, you don't shove her to the margins. Instead, we stay by Bernadette's side for the vast majority of the picture, which makes for an emotional and thematically intriguing wild ride through Bernadette's inordinately privileged but fraught life. After the ticklish suburban satire of the first act and before the hopeful uplift of the third, the film's darkest-before-the-dawn middle passage honors the complexity of mental-health struggles for the sufferer and those who, unsure at every step, try to steer their troubled loved one down a path to healing.

Linklater's "Where'd You Go, Bernadette" is hardly perfect: The character's conspicuous privilege threatens to intrude on the audience's sympathies and the storytelling wavers in tone. As such, it's a bit of a mess, one that arguably exposes a navel-gazing narrowness of theme (art about how hard artists have it) and lets its protagonist too easily off the hook for her own solipsistic obsessions and the damage they have caused. But Blanchett's humanization of Bernadette keeps the film relatable and us rooting for her to get back on track and figure it all out, for her to solve the mystery of sustained happiness.

— Peter Canavese

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