“If you’re lost, you can look and you will find me,” sing Bernadette Fox and her adolescent daughter, Bee, driving in a car while the radio plays Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time.” Like many details in the adaptation of Maria Semple’s “Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” that music cue is perfect.
Richard Linklater’s “Bernadette” is different from Semple’s “Bernadette,” its humor more muted than the blockbuster novel, which is as densely packed with jokes as the “Arrested Development” episodes that Semple coproduced. The movie also is more attuned to moments in which the characters connect or don’t, from something as simple as a concerned look to that Lauper tune, which neither character notices sums up their relationship in one wistful, gorgeous line.
Surprisingly, the time constraints of a movie help focus Semple’s story. Whereas its various elements sprawled out in the book, they pile up fast in the movie, which occasionally feels rushed but has more clarity about how all the pieces come together.
“Bernadette” is narrated by Bee, who tells us at the outset that her mom “forgot to see all the good stuff in her life.” Then, the movie backtracks to reveal that bohemian Bernadette (Cate Blanchett):
• Was a world-renowned architectural innovator who abruptly stopped working.
• Has gutted a Victorian wreck of a reform school and is refurbishing it while her family lives in the rubble.
• Has handed over control of her schedule to a virtual assistant she has never met.
• Is in a border battle with her prim neighbor (Kristen Wiig, smartly underplaying).
• Is having a tough time dealing with Bee’s imminent departure for boarding school.
• Is in the middle of attempts to figure out how to treat what seems to be bipolar disorder.
There’s a sense in which “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” is an adult “Alice in Wonderland,” with the title character negotiating an increasingly bizarre set of circumstances, always trying to find her way back home to her family. (Billy Crudup plays her tech-genius husband and Emma Nelson plays Bee.)
When I heard the casting announcement last year, I assumed Wiig was playing quirky Bernadette, but Blanchett turns out to be an ideal choice. Her quickness and warmth are put to good use, helping us see that at some time before the movie began, Bernadette was the sort of person who wins MacArthur “genius” grants rather than the sort of person who retaliates against the “flying monkey” next door by installing a nasty billboard outside her living room window.
One of the last things we learn in the movie (this is not a spoiler) is that it’s dedicated to Linklater’s late mother, which makes sense because, even more than the novel, “Bernadette” is about the connection between a mother and child, a connection that persists even when it makes one or both of them uncomfortable.
No matter how much the poor decisions of the title character cost her family, or for how long she vanishes, her daughter’s faith remains steadfast. The Foxes are an unconventional family, but there’s a sense that, if one of them is not feeling strong at any particular moment, the other two are ready to step up.
It’s a movie about kindness and support, and Lauper sang about that, too: “If you fall, I will catch you. I will be waiting, time after time.”