Film adaptations of popular novels are pretty commonplace.
There’s an agreed upon story structure, character development and even dialogue to pull from source material for the screenplay. Films become the living embodiment of the images we get in our heads while reading.
But what happens when you’re traditionally adapting untraditionally written storytelling?
Such is the case with director Richard Linklater’s newest film, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” a theatrical take on Maria Semple’s bestselling 2012 novel of the same name.
Written largely in Semple’s novel as emails, memos and transcripts, “Bernadette” the film is just as exceptionally eccentric as its titular character.
Cate Blanchett is delightfully strange as Bernadette, a reclusive mother and former architect who disappears suddenly just before leaving for a vacation to Antarctica with her rich husband and bright-eyed teenage daughter.
At first, Bernadette’s peculiarities are presented as humorous frivolities, but these traits hold deeper meaning and give Blanchett ample room to work within a unique character.
Armed with a wry wit on a quick trigger, Blanchett is ideal to bring Bernadette to life as the Oscar-winning actress has a confident matter-of-fact-ness in the role that is believable rather than caricature.
As audiences join Bernadette on her journey of self-doubt and discovery, Blanchett makes the character so winning that’s hard not to want to spend endless time with Bernadette at any point along the way.
Viewers’ attachment to Bernadette is also attributable to a charming performance from newcomer Emma Nelson as Bernadette’s daughter Bee.
Nelson is refreshing to watch on screen and a perfect foil for Bernadette, a woman Bee simultaneously challenges and adores in an idyllically quirky mother/daughter relationship. The young actress, who also narrates segments of the film, gives audiences someone to identify with easily and Bee’s wide-eyed, unwavering fondness for her mother impresses similar feelings onto the viewer.
Billy Crudup gives a solid effort as Bernadette’s caring but inattentive husband Elgie while veteran comedic actresses Kristen Wiig and Judy Greer are likable in limited screen time.
Yet the whole supporting cast – save for a terrific scene with Lawrence Fishburne – seems to structurally take a backseat to Blanchett.
Their subplots and scenes without Bernadette are less enjoyable as they are largely inconsequential, and it often feels like time better spent following Blanchett around some more.
This could be attributed to the screenplay, which nails Bernadette’s voice but lacks in cohesion.
Linklater works with co-screenwriters Holly Gent and Vince Palmo to adapt Semple’s novel in creative ways.
Bernadette dictates emails into her smartphone; her backstory is segmented in old news broadcasts and YouTube videos.
The filmmakers work tirelessly to bring a two-dimensional Bernadette off pages of written documents unusual in a normal model but fail to develop the world around her as thoroughly.
In this respect, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” feels a bit thin.
For Linklater, this represents perhaps the softest, gentlest film he’s ever directed. It’s a meandering, unbalanced effort that often lacks the panache his most ardent fans might come to expect from the director of “Dazed and Confused,” “School of Rock” and “Boyhood.”
But “Bernadette” is a quaint, simple movie that will warm hearts over the course of two hours and should have a long shelf life as an easily rewatchable film you might put on in the background while cooking or trying to relax on the couch.
Though its luster may wane the further removed you are from it, “Bernadette” is a refreshingly charming film with another exceptional Blanchett performance that’s well worth a trip to theaters.