Based on the very buzzy comedic novel of the same name, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” took the long way to theaters. The movie was filmed back in 2017, only to find its release pushed back three times. First it was a 2018 Mother’s Day film, which was pushed to the end of March 2019 as part of Women’s History month and finally delayed into the doldrums of August. None of this is a good sign. The story of “Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” at least in the novel, is not a heartwarming mother-daughter adventure flick. Nor is this really a women’s empowerment film. That production studio Annapurna Pictures mistook it for either along the way was proof that something had gone seriously wrong.
Not that “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” is an easy story to adapt for the big screen. Author Maria Semple uses a variety of devices to tell her updated version of an epistolary novel, including emails and recorded transcripts of interviews. She presents the narrative almost like an information dump and nothing happens in order. Instead, Bernadette’s 15-year-old daughter, Bee, the book’s ostensible narrator, comes across papers in rambling fashion as she attempts to solve the mystery of her mother’s disappearance in the days before a planned family trip to Antarctic.
In short, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” is a story about a character who disappears before the first page is read and does not turn up until the very end. She is seen in flashbacks only, as Bee (Emma Nelson) searches to understand the woman who gave up her career as an architect to raise her. Indeed, the book’s real hero is the daughter. Her workaholic, tech-billionaire father, Elgin, is no more a major figure than mom.
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Perhaps in the right hands Cate Blanchett (who plays the missing Bernadette) and Billy Crudup (who plays Elgin) could have made this all work, filling in absent characters in Bee’s teenage mind. But that’s not what director Richard Linklater did at all. Instead, not trusting the audience to follow the novel’s non-linear timeline, Linklater unwound all the mysteries, reordered everything in a straight line and strangest of all, never once lets Bernadette disappear.