More so than most filmmakers who treat their characters like human beings, rather than cardboard plot inhabitants, the writer-director Richard Linklater intuits his way into finding the right tone, or mixture of tones, for whatever story he’s telling.
His good and great work has come from all over the place: science fiction novels (“A Scanner Darkly”), young adult historical fiction (“Me and Orson Welles”), memories of Texas childhood, teen years, college and true-crime sagas (“Dazed and Confused,” “Boyhood,” “Bernie”). Spanning 18 years of real time, his “Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight” reminded audiences before and during the age of perpetual digital agitation: Talking things through, without screens and with verifiable eye contact, usually gets you somewhere. At his best, Linklater does the same thing. He makes eye contact with the people in his movies.
Sometimes he wins. Sometimes he doesn’t. And sometimes he lands in a vexing middle ground, as with his latest film, an adaptation co-written with Holly Gent and Vince Palmo of the 2012 Maria Semple novel “Where’d You Go, Bernadette.”
Narrated by 15-year-old Bee Branch, Semple’s epistolary comedy conveys its story of Bee; her brilliant, devoted ex-architect mother, Bernadette; and Microsoft visionary father, Elgin, by way of emails, FBI missives and other correspondence. Once in the architectural vanguard, now semidisgraced (for reasons eventually revealed) and socially phobic in a quippy, nattering way, Bernadette has subcontracted a good portion of her life to an unseen “virtual assistant” somewhere overseas. The weight of that misjudgment eventually leads to the disappearance of the title. Bee pieces together the paper trail that leads her, and her father, to Bernadette’s life-changing whereabouts.
All of this is in the trailer, including a lot that happens in the final half-hour of “Where’d You Go, Bernadette.” Judging from the final version, what drew Linklater to the book was its comic texture, just serious enough to matter, as well as Semple’s investigation of creativity and parenting and what happens when one crowds out the other.
The movie feels a little off from the beginning. The dialogue works less effectively as dialogue, rather than dialogue quoted in various correspondence. It’s arch without being especially witty.
The primary mixed blessing in “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” turns out to be a first-rate actress. Cate Blanchett is a supreme technician, inarguably versatile and never less than compelling. Yet her characterization of Bernadette feels a mite strenuous – stagy, in the wrong way, as opposed to film-y in the right, Linklater way. Meanwhile, the director goes at the social satire with a bludgeon, not a rapier, so that the insufferably progressive liberal smugness, embodied in the Seattle private school Bee attends, grows tiresome. The broader comedy (a Bernadette-caused mudslide ruins a school fundraiser hosted by Kristen Wiig’s snippy fellow school parent) comes off uncertainly as well.
It’s a morose sort of screwball comedy with heart, and right there that’s three elements going in related but separate directions. The supporting cast provides some ballast, thanks to Billy Crudup’s low-keyed Elgin; Laurence Fishburne as Bernadette’s old mentor; and, among others, Troian Bellisario (“Pretty Little Liars”) as Becky, Bernadette’s Antarctica confidante and life coach.
As Bee, the young actress Emma Nelson – daughter of Sheryl Nelson, who owns Elgin’s Goddard School, and West Dundee Mayor Chris Nelson – makes a self-effacing, subtly impressive feature film debut. The character’s almost humanoid in her unflappability; Nelson, guided by Linklater, takes the “-oid” out of the equation, when and where she can.