The idea behind " Where'd You Go, Bernadette " is tantalizing — a woman goes missing and her 15-year-old daughter tries to piece together where she went. In the process, the daughter discovers a whole wonderful life that she knew nothing about — that her shut-in, agoraphobic mother who delegates all tasks to a virtual assistant in India and quarrels with the mothers at the local school was once an exceptional MacArthur Grant-winning architect who quit designing after a professional embarrassment.
But something was lost in translation in the adaptation of Maria Semple's novel for the big screen, despite having everything going for it: solid source material; a prestige cast led by Cate Blanchett and Billy Crudup; a humane and empathic director in Richard Linklater; and a studio (Annapurna) known for giving filmmakers all the freedom they need.
In the book, Bernadette's daughter Bee learns about her enigmatic mother after her disappearance. But the film takes that premise away and instead plops us down with Bernadette Fox (Blanchett), her tech whiz husband Elgin (Crudup) and Bee (charming newcomer Emma Nelson) to follow her descent in what feels like real time. It's obviously necessary to streamline some things when adapting an entire novel into a movie but this takes all the mystery out of it and it's hard not to wonder what the film would have been had they stuck closer to the book's construction.
As it stands, the disappearance under investigation is less literal and more of an exploration into what happened to make Bernadette the way she is. Bedecked in unassumingly expensive wares and big oval sunglasses, Bernadette is just a few shades away from going full "Grey Gardens" when we meet her. She and Elgin and Bee live in a disheveled mansion on top of a messy hillside in a wealthy Seattle neighborhood. The disorder drives her nosy neighbor Audrey (Kristen Wiig) crazy, but Bernadette hardly cares: She hates people and going places and doing things. So it comes as a true shock to Bee and Elgin when she agrees to plan a trip to Antarctica as a reward for Bee's academic successes.
But she starts to agonize about the trip as soon as she says yes to it. The Amazon boxes stacking up around her with all the "necessities" for the voyage aren't even hopeful — they come to symbolize the things that will only weigh her down further. It's pleasant enough joining Blanchett — snarky, manic and in a full on depression that she can reasonably compartmentalize as a necessary byproduct of her own intelligence — going about her business: Quarrelling with neighbors and trying to convince pharmacists to give her far-too-strong drugs all while attempting to maintain a connection with Bee.
Yet the extreme quirkiness of this wealthy family starts to wear thin and you feel like you're just treading water, surviving only on the charm of the actors, the truly stunning production design and the occasionally great line (many of which go to Blanchett but some also to Laurence Fishburne who finally gets the real story out of Bernadette and tells her that artists who stop creating become a menace to society).
And perhaps that's enough for a pleasant watch, but I found myself unmoved by Bernadette's stasis, her on-the-rocks marriage and even her quest to get her creative spark back. The most emotionally resonant part for me came compliments of Wiig's character Audrey, who seems like a caricature of a perfect mom for most of the film until she hits you with an unexpected bit of humanity. But it's hardly enough to make the film the life-affirming journey it thinks it is.
And besides, a Linklakter and Blanchett collaboration should be more than passable.
"Where'd You Go Bernadette," a United Artists Releasing release is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for "some strong language and drug material." Running time: 130 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
MPAA Definition of PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr