“Wakefield” – “I’m totally bewildered by the situation that I created for myself.” – Howard Wakefield
“A short story is the shortest distance between two points. A novel is the scenic route.” – Robert J. Sawyer
Howard Wakefield (Bryan Cranston) is a married man who lives in a big, beautiful house nestled in an affluent suburb with his wife, Diana (Jennifer Garner), and their twin girls. He is a law firm partner. She is an assistant curator at the county museum. Their lives appear in perfect order, one that the American dream can sometimes promise.
Although, life in the Wakefield house is not perfect. Not by a longshot, and discontent solely stems from Howard, a miserable, jealous and cantankerous human being. We all know this type of person, and if we are smart and practice healthy boundaries, we hopefully keep our distance. Distance from someone who desperately searches for blemishes on figurative canvases where none exist.
Howard wants out. He wants out of his marriage. He wants out of his life. He wants out of himself. He gets his wish, but in doing so, he voluntarily mires in a cesspool of self-pity and resentment in the most unlikely of places.
Writer/director Robin Swicord constructs her portrayal of Howard Wakefield from an unlikely place, a 2008 short story appearing in “The New Yorker” by E.L. Doctorow. Swicord – who penned the screenplays for “Little Women” (1994) and “Memoirs of a Geisha” (2005) – runs into an inherent problem here, because Wakefield’s story does not easily translate into a one-hour 46-minute feature film. Instead, it feels like an experiment better suited for a short film, about half its runtime.
Within the first few minutes, one can easily discern that “Wakefield” is an adapted screenplay, because Howard narrates every move from his law office to the train station and eventually to his home. Soon, it also becomes apparent that he will narrate the entire film, and this one-sided perspective turns into a deep character study of a flawed, damaged man. Cranston, one of the most popular and skilled actors working today, seems tailor-made for this role and falls into belligerent distress very well.
He is fascinating to watch. As Wakefield fills the screen with his deepest, most secret thoughts of scorn, he descends into a primordial physical state. He leaves his family but also dumps his posh lifestyle’s creature comforts. Sure, manicures, wine tastings and drives to the coast no longer fit into his life plan, but Howard goes without running water, food refrigeration and a working thermostat as well. This descent visually plays well, as routine practices – like shaving – become habitual exercises of the past and rummaging through garbage bins morph into his daily norms.
Rhythmically, Swicord’s choices and Cranston’s charisma attract a morbid curiosity which begs the question: How far down the rabbit hole will Wakefield travel? On its own, Howard’s trip into madness is an absorbing one at times. Swicord raises questions about fidelity, competition and warring factions within households. Granted, Howard’s distorted view is one-sided, but it does ring with some traces of truth and leaves the audience ample heaps of coffee shop fodder.
Unfortunately, the film’s construction runs into ample amounts of cinematic problems in a couple areas. First, and as previously mentioned, Howard’s perspective is one-sided. As he purchases his trip into self-exile, we never get Diana’s perspective, at least verbally. We see her reactions to Howard’s disappearance but do not hear an equal and opposite reaction. How is Howard’s without-a-trace disappearance impacting her physiologically? Equal amounts of screen time of her thoughts is not necessarily needed, but a happy medium between zero and 50 should be in order. I would actually be thrilled with 1.3 percent, but Swicord provides zilch.
Secondly, Howard takes a distant trip from his previous life but does not physically transport himself to a faraway place. Actually, the main point of the film is that he does not travel very far in making his great escape, but he – miraculously – is not spotted by a friend, his girls or Diana. That just plainly feels implausible. The narrative dictates that he is cunning enough to remain invisible in near plain sight, but Harry Houdini should have as many tricks in his arsenal of deception. Actually, he is spotted by a pair of unlikely neighbors, but the two or three random scenes of discovery look crowbarred into the story to appeal to Howard’s humanity. Although he could use a little levity, these moments do not serve any purpose in the grand scheme.
Stuck with an inauthentic premise, one is solely left with Cranston’s performance. Well, after a few weeks of exile, Howard’s motivations are wrapped in gamesmanship, and he plays his family and teases the audience. How far and how long will he take it, and who is taking bets? The film almost fights itself, a constant fracas between Cranston pushing Howard’s madness and the script spilling over into pools of implausibility. Despite Cranston’s best efforts, for me, the implausible story “won”, but who knows. If the movie ran just 53 minutes instead of 106, Cranston probably would have won me over. After all, “Wakefield” is based on a short story.