PLOT When an eccentric woman vanishes, her husband and daughter travel far and wide to find her.
CAST Cate Blanchett, Billy Crudup, Emma Nelson
RATED PG-13 (language and grown-up themes)
BOTTOM LINE Grade-A performances, but the movie is more irksome than endearing.
Meet Bernadette Fox, a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown in Richard Linklater's "Where'd You Go, Bernadette." Once a brilliant architect, now a stay-at-home mom supported by her husband's tech-sector wealth, Bernadette has transformed a life of privilege into a psychological dungeon. Antisocial, insomniac and highly medicated, Bernadette is a shadow of her once-lively self — a modern-day Doll of Silicon Valley, so to speak.
"I just need you to know how hard it is for me sometimes," she says to her wide-eyed tweener daughter, Bee. "The banality of life."
If Bernadette weren't played by the radiant, razor-sharp Cate Blanchett, we'd never put up with her, or this movie. Blanchett has long excelled at playing such fatally flawed diamonds — a calculating lover in "Carol," a soul-sucking socialite in "Blue Jasmine" — and her performance here is dependably terrific, a masterful blend of wrenching emotion and screwball comic timing. (Who else could make us laugh at Bernadette's attempt to con her pharmacist out of some Haldol?) Blanchett makes us feel compassion and pity for this well-dressed train wreck. The movie's mistake is that it asks us to adore her.
Linklater, who co-wrote the screenplay from Maria Semple's novel, has always been an astute people-watcher (see "Dazed and Confused" or "Boyhood" for proof). Initially, he sees Bernadette with bracing clarity. She harbors an irrational hatred for her too-perfect neighbor, Audrey (Kristen Wiig); she resents her husband, Elgie (a sensitive Billy Crudup), for his creative successes at Microsoft; she turns to Bee (an endearing Emma Nelson, in her screen debut) for unconditional love. After Bernadette becomes the focus of an FBI investigation — a wild contrivance, but an amusing one — Elgie begs his wife to seek help. Instead, she vanishes.
Here, the movie goes into cutesy-magical overdrive, as Bernadette flies away to rediscover the genius that once earned her a MacArthur grant. Meanwhile, Elgie and Bee travel to the literal ends of the Earth — Antarctica — to find her. It's all pitched as a thrilling treasure hunt. Here's a plainer word for it: desertion.
Near the film's end, Elgie stands before his poor, misunderstood wife and reaches into his pocket. "I have something for you," he says. It's a token of his undying love, of course, but you might find yourself wishing it were divorce papers.
Richard Linklater's movies tend to be talky, philosophical and straightforwardly filmed — except when they aren't. Here's a sampling of the Texas-born director's unpredictable output:
SLACKER (1991) Linklater established himself as an indie-cinema maverick with this micro-budget marvel, a plotless, hilarious study of weirdos and hipsters hanging out in Austin, the director's adopted hometown.
THROUGH A SCANNER DARKLY (2006) Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder and Robert Downey Jr. star in this sci-fi nightmare about a nation hooked on hallucinogens. Based on a Philip K. Dick novel. Also, it's animated.
SCHOOL OF ROCK (2003) That's right — Linklater directed this crowd-pleasing comedy about a wannabe rocker (Jack Black) who takes a bunch of grade-schoolers under his disreputable wing. The movie was a major hit and spawned both a Broadway musical and a Nickelodeon television show.
BOYHOOD (2014) The director's masterpiece, shot in secret over the course of 12 years, shows us a boy (Ellar Coltrane) growing into a man before our eyes. With Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, who won the Oscar for supporting actress. — RAFER GUZMAN