When one of the greatest working directors of actors and one of the greatest working actors collaborate on their first film together, it is extremely easy to get one's expectations all riled up. And this much at least can't be denied about Where'd You Go, Bernadette: Cate Blanchett (for she is the actor) is splendid, falling naturally and easily into the calming hang-out mood typical of Richard Linklater's filmography (for he is the director). If I were going to be a little bit pissy, I'd suggest that she is, to be precise, splendid in the most expected way possible: this is the kind of performance that, once you hear the star's name and also the film's logline, you've already gone most of the way to correctly predicting exactly what she's going to do. It's not exactly that Blanchett is sleepwalking her way through the part (something she did quite recently, in 2018'sΒ Ocean's Eight, though it's the only time I can think of that she has); it's more that there's a path of least resistance to approach this character, and for the most part, Blanchett doesn't mind sticking pretty close to that path. Not without exception: in one of the last scenes in the film, she finds a way to navigate across a room that made my heart leap a little bit. But it's definitely not a surprising performance, even if it's at least very good.

The character is Bernadette Fox, the title character, though not the protagonist, of the 2012 bestselling novel by Maria Semple. One of the big changes in the screenplay Linklater & Holly Gent & Vince Palmo (the latter two have only one previous writing credit, for Me and Orson Welles - possibly Linklater's worst film, and certainly his least-interesting. If I had encountered this fun fact earlier, I'd have saved myself quite a lot of optimistic anticipation) is to reposition Bernadette more securely as the story's present center, and so the novel's mystery structure (and the reason for its title) has been completely wiped away. What's left is the character study of one of a stunningly radical architect who has spent the last two decades living in self-imposed exile in Seattle, where her husband Elgie Branch (Billy Crudup) works at Microsoft and gives TED talks. That Where'd You Go, Bernadette doesn't think about making any kind of commentary on either of these traits gives us a sense of how reflexively middlebrow and bourgeois things are going to be for the film's 130 minutes. Bernadette and Elgie have a daughter, Bee (Emma Nelson), who has set her sights on a family trip to Antarctica right after Christmas, and in a confoundingly ill-written scene, they agree. This sets Bernadette off; she has a profound but well-hidden anxiety about basically everything that she can't directly control, she hates leaving her house, she hates being around people, and the thought of being trapped on a boat with strangers at the end of the world is as close to a perfect embodiment of her private Hell as she'll come up with. Cue a movie's worth of Bernadette flailing out with superior anger to all the world, and especially her ultra-bourgeois neighbor Audrey Griffin (Kristen Wiig).

This doesn't work and is bad, though not consistently so. Basically, the film cleaves neatly into three parts (not equal thirds), and you can pinpoint the exact shot where each shift happens. The first part of the film is, generally, oriented around Bee's perspective, and much less so Elgie's, as they watch with nervous amusement as Bernadette plays queen gargoyle in the chafing upper-middle-class neighborhood where she's been stranded for so much of her life. It's a satire of the mores of suburban Nice People living that has selected extraordinarily broad targets and of course manages to hit them, though I think we should not at all give the film too much praise for being able to replicate exactly the same shtick as pretty much every other suburban satire of the post-American Beauty era. This abruptly ends when Bernadette enters a small local pharmacy looking to fill a prescription for anti-seasickness medication, and with a flash of eager enthusiasm we've seen nowhere in her before this point starts talking about the chandelier. All of sudden, Where'd You Go, Bernadette becomes a tale about the painful interior suffering of its title character, variously serving as a sympathetic look at the struggles of coping with anxiety disorders and a tribute to the inner lives of artists who are, by virtue of the machinations of fate, prevented from practicing their art. Which is awfully self-serving wankery, sure, but communicated with great conviction. The middle part of the film is truly good. It is a strong character study, well-balanced on Blanchett's shoulders, with Crudup providing a warm blanket as the insufficient calming force on both the protagonist and the movie as a whole (it's also his first film with Linklater, which is genuinely shocking, given how perfectly their humane, let's-hang-out-quietly vibes fit together).

A gentlemanly resistance to spoilers prevents me from talking about the third part, but it starts with a drone shot and is ginned-up, idiotic bullshit.

So a weak, shticky opening, and an ending that is just awful, awful pandering crap; but the middle is there, at least. It's funny, it's smart, and Blanchett's work at making Bernadette tangibly desperate and near her breaking point, but without sacrificing the film's gentle comic tone, is absolutely terrific. There are other nice grace notes: I love the way that Linklater eases over to YouTube videos to crisply provide exposition while implicitly suggesting that we're only getting a heavily sensational, insufficient version of the true event, for one thing.

But there's also a whole lot of movie that just doesn't work. Aside from the wretched ending, far too much of the humor falls flat, the numerous big actors in teeny roles are distracting, and the director's sure and steady hand for guiding child actors has abandoned him with Emma Nelson, who is stuck with reams and reams of narration (this narration mostly leaves the film during its middle part, another reason why it's the film's highlight), and persistently overdelivers it in the most aggravatingly prim, hyper-articulate way. The film leaves its most fascinating character dynamic, the hostility between Bernadette and Audrey that takes a very strange turn in the end of the second part, to wither and die from neglect at exactly the moment it's become its best self. And it's so extremely slow; Linklater films are always hang-out joints, but they're not usually hang-out joints that also have elaborate, globe-trotting plots, and all of his instincts as a filmmaker point in the wrong direction for the story's genre elements as well as its satire. It's no Me and Orson Welles - it's not even Fast Food Nation - but it is unquestionably a bottom-tier effort for a filmmaker capable of far subtler character pieces than this even daydreams of being.