'Wakefield': Telluride Review

An adventurous performance in a smoothly conventional package.

Bryan Cranston and Jennifer Garner star in this film, adapted from an E.L. Doctorow story, about a man who withdraws from work and family.

Bryan Cranston is the whole show in Wakefield, an often engaging but decreasingly convincing tale of a man whose emotional and mental breakdown drives him to desert his family, but continue to observe it from close range. Screenwriter and director Robin Swicord does a smooth, perhaps even too fastidious, job of putting this very literary conceit on the big screen, but Cranston’s tour de force will be the main selling point both to potential distributors and the public.

Based on a drolly captivating 2012 short story by the late literary giant E.L. Doctorow, this is the story of a dropout, from work and family — of a man who one day leaves his Manhattan office, takes the train home to suburbia and holes up across the driveway from his comfortable house in a garage attic, from which he monitors the activities of his wife and two daughters while unloading his sometimes malevolent, sometimes witty, remarks about them and his life.

In many ways, this feels like an immediate descendant of William Whyte’s seminal 1956 book The Organization Man, which first brought to general awareness the sterility and discontent to be found beneath the surface of post-World War II American prosperity; the narrator here refers to it as “the slow trajectory of a collapsing civilization.”

Although set in modern times, the piece feels like very close kin to John Cheever, John Updike, Richard Yates and others of the preceding East Coast literary generation.

Sticking very closely to Doctorow’s text, which was first published in The New Yorker, Swicord (The Jane Austen Book Club) is faithful to her source virtually to the letter, preserving the frank, peevish, mischievous and vengeful inner thoughts of a man who, objectively, looks half normal and half off the deep end.

Initially, Howard Wakefield (Cranston) gleefully observes the growing panic of his wife Diana (Jennifer Garner) as the hours go by, after which she calls in the police, sees the girls off in the morning and, finally, goes to work herself. Howard confides certain dissatisfactions within his marriage, which at first involve commonplace issues, like jealousy, diminished interest, imbalances of love and game playing, all very family territory.

As the little second-floor storage room is considered gross enough that the female members of the family never go up there — and that the window that facilitates Howard’s voyeurism is dirty enough that there’s little chance anyone would ever see his face from the outside — Howard settles in, seemingly for the long haul.

He scrounges food out of the garbage, sneaks over to the house when he knows the others will be gone, keeps out of sight of neighbors and won’t use credits cards, a cell phone or any other items by which his location or even existence could be traced. Before long, his hair has grown long and his beard has become so unkempt that he looks like a homeless bum, to the extent that he can wander around town with little fear of being recognized. To anyone looking for him, Howard has essentially vanished from the planet.

Throughout it all, his commentary continues, and we begin seeing flashbacks of early days, with particular focus on his courtship of Diana and how he won her over from his fiercest competitor for her affections, Dirk (Jason O’Mara), who also was his best friend. One would think that his victory would have left Howard contented, but he still stews over it all, voicing outright his feeling about his wife, saying, “I just want you to want me as much as I want you.”

It doesn’t take much to stir Howard’s suspicions, and any man who comes by for any reason is deeply suspect, but how the man truly wants the bizarre situation he’s created to play out to his eventual benefit becomes more unclear the more time passes.

Howard’s warped and extreme way of trying to resolve his mid-life crisis is novel and extreme enough to sustain one’s attention, but moreso on the page than onscreen, where the long-term viability of his choice appears far more absurd and dubious. How he endures the frigid winter and the utter boredom of his self-inflicted predicament suddenly become more urgent issues when dramatized rather than breezed over in a few words. Similarly, the startling and abrupt ending plays better in a literary context than when physicalized.

Swicord took on a daunting challenge in adapting this piece, and she’s met it more intelligently than convincingly. It would have been asking a lot from any actor to carry this film, and Cranston has done the heavy lifting and more. Even if we don’t understand all the conflicting impulses and emotions that have led Howard to such extreme measures, the actor illuminates many sides of the man’s complex feelings about his family and friends. There’s a lot of nastiness and resentment here, and he releases it with regularity.

What was an excellent short story has become something rather less satisfactory as a full-length feature film, but at least impressive for what an outstanding actor has brought to it. Garner and O’Mara, the two other actors to get a few words in edgewise, deliver solidly. Quite effective thematically at the outset, as it lyrically suggests trouble beneath smooth surface waters, Aaron Zigman’s music becomes very conventionally used later on, and other craft artisans have helped Swicord deliver a pro, if safely conventional, result.

Venue: Telluride Film Festival (also in Toronto Film Festival)
Production: Mockingbird Pictures
Cast: Bryan Cranston, Jennifer Garner, Jason O’Mara, Beverly D’Angelo, Ian Anthony Dale, Pippa Bennett-Warner, Isaac Leyva, Victor Bruno, Ellery Sprayberry
Director-screenwriter: Robin Swicord, based on the short story by E.L. Doctorow
Producers: Wendy Federman, Carl Moellenberg, Julie Lynn, Bonnie Curtis, Eric Nelsen
Executive producers: Dominick LaRuffa Jr., Luigi Caiola, Gayle Gardner, Joel Gardner, Alex Guez, Rob Hinderliter, Kevin Lamb, Maria J. McDonald, Ruth Mutch, Stephanie Pinola, Brandon Powers, Bobby Sain, Iris Smith
Director of photography: Andre Bowden-Schwartz
Production designer: Jeannine Oppewall
Costume designer: Kim H. Ngo
Editor: Matt Maddox
Music: Aaron Zigman
Casting: Amy Lippens

Not rated, 109 minutes