“Where’d You Go, Bernadette” is one of the best movies of the summer. And of the year. Those moviegoers who like movies about individual characters will find it especially pleasing. Folks who like to laugh will find it very amusing.
The film is based on a novel of the same title by Maria Semple. Director Richard Linklater, who made “Before Midnight,” “Boyhood” and “Dazed and Confused” co-authored the screenplay adaptation. But this is almost beside the point.
Because “Where’d You Go” depends so much on its cast, and particularly on Cate Blanchett, who naturally has the title part. Billy “Golden God” Crudup makes as much of the role of Bernadette’s tech meister husband Elgie as the screenplay will allow. And, luckily, a little bit more.
The story is narrated by the couple’s daughter Bee (Emma Nelson), who begins her retelling of events by flashing forward five weeks to an overhead shot of people in kayaks surrounded by icy water.
Then we get the real start-up, though there will be occasional departures from the timeline, usually to help explain why the eccentric central character retains some basic self-confidence. Bernadette was a famous residential architect in L.A.
Even in the present, people still stop her after having seen an online short about her rise, her “genius grant,” the tragic end of her “twenty-mile house,” and her succeeding 20 years of professional silence in rainy Seattle where her husband works for Microsoft.
A bit of TV tells us something about his genius, too. He is seen giving one of those odd product briefings computer guys are known for. Here the product is a patch one puts on one’s forehead. The patch will read the mind behind the skull, accepting dictation in the form of thoughts. Wild stuff.
Actually Bernadette is using a fairly impressive “digital assistant” of her own, telling her always-on-duty Alexa, named “Manjulia,” to get her a trendy multipocket fisherman’s vest for the trip the family is going on to Antarctica, for example, or ordering heavy-duty sea-sickness drugs for the voyage.
Otherwise she spends her days in the family’s huge, decaying, house, redecorated in patches. She brushes off human contact when it is forced on her. She drives her daughter around, the two of them singing Cyndi Lauper songs and discussing the “elephant dance” Bee is designing for a kindergarten’s Christmas program.
The downhill neighbor, Audrey, is played by Kristen Wiig, and she’s just one of the recognizables taking secondary parts or putting in cameo performances — Laurence Fishburne, Steve Zahn and Judy Greer chief among them.
The neighbor boy is a classmate of Bee’s. And his mother is devoted to Gen Y thinking habits (thus the Seattle setting) and 1930s social class notions. She is worried about vine growth and so introduces a “blackberry abatement specialist” to Bernadette.
Knowing, probably, what mischief she is doing, Bernadette lets the man rip off the vegetation on the hillside above the neighbor’s house during a rainy season. Later her run-ins with Audrey, her jumbled collection of untaken prescription medications and a melodramatic FBI report on Manjulia will all figure in a remote diagnosis by a trendy psychologist.
And that diagnosis makes Bernadette, who knows she isn’t crazy, react in ways that lead to the kayak scene.
Along the way poor Crudup is asked to act out an important character deflection in a very short stretch of time and with very little action supporting it. His success here will remind the viewer how good he is. And how much acting can accomplish.
Certainly Blanchett’s performance is the thing that makes this quirky, well-paced, and surprisingly funny movie go. So you go see “Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” and end your cinematic summer on a high note. And go quick, before the movie leaves town.