“Chihulys are the pigeons of Seattle,” wrote Maria Semple, in her delicious novel “Where’d You Go, Bernadette.” “They’re everywhere, and even if they don’t get in your way, you can’t help but build up a kind of antipathy toward them.”
My copy of the book happened to fall open to that page, but it’s a perfect example of why the book is so irresistible to those of us who live here — and why the movie, directed by Richard Linklater, sadly falls flat. “Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” the book, is a sly comedy of manners; a portrait of a cranky, acerbic, brilliant woman who’s struggling to cope with a world — and, specifically, a city — that doesn’t understand her. While Semple lets warmth and love shine through (particularly in Bernadette’s relationship with her sweet teen daughter Bee), she’s careful to never get too heartwarming; the book works because Bernadette is allowed to be who she is. And she makes us laugh, all the time.
I’d been a bit worried about the movie ever since I heard of its existence; sly wit is hard enough on the page, and even harder on screen, where it can easily dissolve into archness. I worried when the released date kept moving later and later (it was originally due out in May of last year, but has been pushed out four times by my count). I worried more when I read a recent interview with Linklater (“Boyhood”) in which he said that while a different director might lean on the comedy, he was more interested in the story’s emotional core. And then I saw the movie and … well, I love Linklater, but they probably should have gone with that different director.
“Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” the movie, is a strange hybrid; it’s quirky without being all that funny, and its characters rarely seem to connect with each other. Cate Blanchett, as Bernadette, stalks through the movie with Anna Wintour hair and sunglasses, giving a very In Capital Letters performance of a woman who’s always performing. It’s one of those rare occasions in which Blanchett is less than mesmerizing on screen; she flaps her hands and intones her lines and it just comes out flat.
You can see what Linklater was going for — the scenes with Blanchett and the charming young newcomer Emma Nelson, who plays Bee, are the movie’s best, particularly one in which they happily sing “Time After Time” in a car as the Seattle rain pours. But the rest of the film sags. Things happen illogically, to such an extent you wonder if some crucial scenes were cut: a character who’s Bernadette’s enemy suddenly becomes her friend; Bernadette and her family find a magical happy ending.
And what’s also missing is that sense of Seattle itself — that deliciously mocking portrait of our town. (“Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” for most of its running time, isn’t even filmed here, though there are a few peeks of Seattle landmarks.) “None of what’s become of me is Seattle’s fault,” says Bernadette, late in the film, and it’s mystifying; those not familiar with the novel will have no idea what she’s talking about. Like Bernadette, the movie’s lost; you’ll need to read the book to truly find her.
★★ “Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” with Cate Blanchett, Billy Crudup, Judy Greer, Kristen Wiig, Laurence Fishburne, Emma Nelson. Directed by Richard Linklater, from a screenplay by Linklater, Holly Gent and Vince Palmo. 104 minutes. Rated PG-13 for some strong language and drug material. Opens Aug. 16 at multiple theaters.