Where’d you go, Richard Linklater? After a sterling decade-plus run of films, including the “Before Sunrise” trilogy, “Boyhood,” and “Everybody Wants Some!!,” the Austin, Texas-based indie writer-director has hit a fallow patch. “Last Flag Flying” (2017) was a touching but clumsy drama about aging veterans, and his latest, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” mishandles Maria Semple’s best-selling comic novel into a clattery mess. There are deftly human moments to be found, but you have to dig for them like potatoes.
Ironically, one of the most interesting aspects of the movie — its depressed, dyspeptic heroine — is the one many audiences will have trouble with. When you hire Cate Blanchett to play an unlikable woman, you’d better believe she’ll be unlikable, but that’s what gives the early scenes in “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” their caustic zing.
The title character is an eccentric Seattle wife and mother, living in a tumbledown mansion and deriding the upper-middle-class moms surrounding her as “gnats.” Bernadette has an adoring husband, Elgin (Billy Crudup) who’s distracted by his job as a high-tech guru at Microsoft, as well as a teenage daughter, Bee (newcomer Emma Nelson), who loves her mother because Bee has put in the work to understand her.
Eventually we understand, too, via a slick YouTube video that recaps Bernadette’s past as a visionary, award-winning architect who threw in the towel after a cherished project went awry. She’s a capital-A Artist who has bottled up her gift for 20 years — no wonder she’s a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Blanchett shows us the character’s pain but also her wit and rage; Bernadette is hard to take in ways the movie both intends and doesn’t. (There’s a lot of First World-problems class privilege that goes unexamined, for one thing. I mean a lot.)
That YouTube video is only one of the ways Linklater force-feeds us information in “Where’d You Go, Bernadette.” Bee gets a narrative voice-over track, Bernadette has an India-based “virtual assistant” to whom she dictates requests for purchases and arias of unhappiness, and there are dueling monologues in which Elgin and Bernadette fill in further chunks of backstory to, respectively, a family therapist (Judy Greer) and a professor mentor (Laurence Fishburne). The movie’s an exposition Exposition, a textbook example of telling instead of showing, in which Linklater and two co-writers wrestle Semple’s antic plot onto the screen and lose.
Said plot includes landslides, FBI agents, pharmaceutical mix-ups, family interventions, and journeys to the South Pole — a farrago of farce that never quite jells with the movie’s serious concerns. Compensations are to be found in the supporting cast (especially Kristen Wiig as an uptight uber-mom) and the stray sparks of connection that have always been Linklater’s forte. The film’s unexpected MVP is Nelson as the daughter, whose sympathy for her beleaguered mother allow her to negotiate the movie’s speed-bumps with nuance and grace.
As expected, Blanchett has no interest in playing nice, and that gives the movie more of a cutting edge than it knows what to do with. In the final act of “Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” set among the ice floes of Antarctica (some of which look real and some of which feel tricked-up), we’re asked to believe that the heroine may finally, joyously get her groove back. You sense it’s the one thing everyone wants for Bernadette except the actress playing her.
WHERE’D YOU GO, BERNADETTE
Directed by Richard Linklater. Written by Richard Linklater, Holly Gent, and Vince Palmo, based on the novel by Maria Semple. Starring Cate Blanchett, Emma Nelson, Billy Crudup, Kristen Wiig. At Boston theaters and suburbs. 107 minutes. PG (some strong language and drug material).