Film Review: ‘Wakefield’

In what may as well be a one-man show, Bryan Cranston plays a husband and father who checks out of his own life, only to spy on the family he abandoned.

Wakefield Telluride
Courtesy of Telluride Film Festival

“Who hasn’t had the impulse to put life on hold for a moment?” asks New York lawyer, husband, and father Howard Wakefield, who decides to spend his mid-life crisis holed up in the attic above his own garage in “Wakefield” (which is certainly a lot cheaper than buying a fancy new sports car to park inside it). No, Howard, this is not everyone’s fantasy, though it is perhaps relatable enough to serve up some valuable lessons in life and marriage, as Bryan Cranston — who carries nearly the whole show in a performance that’s less “Breaking Bad” than an embittered version of his “Malcolm in the Middle” suburban dad — allows us to vicariously experience how such a divorce from reality (if not his Stepford-perfect spouse, played by Jennifer Garner) might go down.

Adapted from an E.L. Doctorow short story published by the New Yorker three months after the release of Robin Swicord’s “The Jane Austin Book Club,” this follow-up took writer-director Swicord more than eight years to get made (in between, she earned an Oscar nomination for a little movie called “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”). Though the polished-looking production was modestly budgeted enough, it’s easy to understand why investors would have considered it a risk (even a starry disintegrating-marriage autopsy like “Revolutionary Road” maxed out around $20 million). “Wakefield” was ultimately funded by the kind of Broadway Angels support used to back promising start-ups, and while hardly a feel-good romance, such an unflinching look at conjugal rift could seriously resonate with middle-aged moviegoers — especially women — starved for smart, personal stories. If only the ending weren’t such a cop-out.

In the beginning, Cranston barely opens his mouth, speaking only to place his order at a Grand Central Station coffee shop (where he breezes past producer Wendy Federman and cuts in front of Doctorow’s widow, Helen, both making cameos). It’s safe to assume that this commute — from New York City to the suburbs, where he lives in a big home with detached two-story garage — is the only alone time Wakefield gets during the week, the rest of it packed with office pressures and the commotion of family life at home. When his wife Diana (Garner) calls, he lets it go to voicemail, preferring to brood in silence. That will change soon enough, as Cranston’s narration, a case of misanthropy rendered eloquent in Swicord’s resonant retelling, becomes nearly as constant as “The Notebook” composer Aaron Zigman’s score, which provides a phony snow-globe allure at odds with Wakefield’s sourpuss vision of his life.

How many times has Wakefield repeated this routine, soldiering off to work in the morning, then returning home to his suffocatingly perfect life? When (as he later asks) did his wife and daughter become “the opposing team,” ganging up against their distracted, workaholic dad around the house? As an alpha male, he’s not content with what he has. Though it drives Diana crazy, it takes sexual jealousy to keep him interested — and when Wakefield finally reveals the origins of their relationship, it’s perhaps the least romantic, most calculated seduction we’ll see all year. Can a man like Wakefield, who refuses to accept love, preferring to fester in feelings of resentment and persecution, ever be happy?

These questions, like the one about wanting to put his life on hold, touch on the sort of doubts that gnaw at people without real problems to distract them — but they also speak to anyone who’s ever gotten what he or she thought they wanted, only to discover that the desire for more still remains.

Back on the train, an electrical outage forces the passengers to make their way home on foot, but instead of rushing inside to greet his worried wife when he arrives, Wakefield is distracted by a wild raccoon scavenging at the end of his driveway. When the creature attempts to take refuge in the attic apartment above his garage, Wakefield follows, catching a glimpse of his family from the upstairs window. Diana calls again, and Wakefield ignores it a second time, opting to hide out in the attic for a few more hours — which will become days, then weeks, then nearly a year.

“I’m so sick of this constant surveillance!” he grumbles — ironic, considering that he will soon enough be grabbing his binoculars from storage and spying on her as she frets, calls the police, takes comfort in her friends, and eventually decides to move on with her life. All of these actions are observed from a distance and narrated by Wakefield from his perch, in a snide impression of his wife’s voice. What is she really thinking? We’ll never know, as “Wakefield” is told exclusively from Wakefield’s p.o.v., and he’s too arrogant to consider that he might be wrong.

It takes incredible resolve to attempt what Wakefield does. Walking out is “easy,” he says, “anyone can do that,” but camping out mere feet from one’s previous life and watching, like a witness at one’s own funeral, well, that takes discipline. Wakefield fancies himself cleverer than everyone else, his disdain extending to Diana’s best friend, the widow Babs (Beverly D’Angelo), and a handsome colleague, Ben Jacobs (Ian Anthony Dale), who might be trying to make his move, but he’s not just intolerant, but intolerable at times. If this were any other actor than Cranston (say, if “Mad Men’s” Jon Hamm or “American Beauty” star Kevin Spacey were playing the same role), it would be unbearable. But Cranston humanizes his sociopathic character, which is essential, considering that “Wakefield” is essentially a one-man show whose star grows increasingly creepy as his beard fills in and his fingernails lengthen and turn back.

He interacts with no one, apart from a pair of developmentally challenged kids (Pippa Bennett-Warner and Isaac Leyva) who live next door, and leaves the attic only at night, becoming no better than the raccoon he’d discovered there in the first place: He scavenges trash cans and hisses at other homeless people, growing increasingly feral in his solitude. Wakefield may seem like a unique and rather incredible case, but Cranston’s character is not the first to cast himself out from his own life. Doctorow’s short story is itself a refresh of an earlier piece by Nathaniel Hawthorne, also called “Wakefield,” about “as remarkable a freak as may be found in the whole list of human oddities.”

Like the snapping-point office drone Michael Douglas played in “Falling Down,” he’s someone who copes poorly with life’s challenges, and as his days in the attic drag on, it begs the question what he can possibly do to untangle the situation he’s created for himself. And here, while true to Doctorow, the movie disappoints. We laugh at a few of the scenarios Wakefield imagines for himself, but the movie ends before we see how his actual plan plays out. After dodging the big confrontation that might have ended his marriage, “Wakefield” lets us down by not showing the one that might save it.

Film Review: ‘Wakefield’

Reviewed at Telluride Film Festival, Sept. 3, 2016. (Also in Toronto Film Festival — Special Presentations.) Running time: <strong>109 MIN.</strong>

  • Production: Producers: Julie Lynn, Bonnie Curtis, Elliot Webb, Carl Moellenberg, Wendy Federman. Executive producers: David Boies, Stephanie Pinola, Luigi Caiola, Rose Caiola, Gayle Gardner, Joel Gardner, Alex Guez, Rob Hinderliter, Dominick Laruffa Jr., Kevin Lamb, Maria J. McDonald, Ruth Mutch, Brandon Powers, Bobby Sain, Iris Smith.
  • Crew: Director, writer: Robin Swicord, based on the short story by E.L. Doctorow. Camera (color, widescreen): Andrei Bowden Schwartz. Editor: Matt Maddox.
  • With: Bryan Cranston, Jennifer Garner, Jason O'Mara, Beverly D'Angelo, Ian Anthony Dale, Pippa Bennett-Warner, Isaac Leyva, Victoria Bruno, Ellery Sprayberry, Tracey Walter.