Friday, May 26, 2017

Flee and Observe: Cranston brings gravitas to bittersweet "Wakefield"

Wakefield (2017) 
109 min., rated R.

It’s not inhuman for an individual craving the ability to put his or her life on hold to recharge, and “Wakefield” taps into that bittersweet idea with a low-key absurdity. Based on the 2008 short story by E.L. Doctorow that was originally published in The New Yorker, the film is written for the screen and finely directed by Robin Swicord (2007’s “The Jane Austen Book Club”) with a quiet, human-sized touch, at least for a while, but this is really a one-man show by the man in the window. Howard Wakefield (Bryan Cranston) has all the trappings of a successful lawyer and happy family man, but one night after commuting home to the Connecticut suburbs from his law firm during a blackout, he decides to voluntarily place himself into exile. Instead of facing wife Diane (Jennifer Garner) and their twin daughters, he ends up chasing a raccoon into the attic of his garage and then holing up there. From the round window in the attic, Howard is able to watch his family while distancing himself from them and reflecting on his life. As Howard scavenges food leftovers from his and his neighbors’ garbage and scrounges up old blankets to stay warm once the weather changes, days turn to weeks and then months. As Howard tells us, “You see, I never left my family. I left myself.”

Literary to an extreme with wall-to-wall voice-over narration, “Wakefield” often sounds like Bryan Cranston reading an audiobook for the short story upon which the film is based. There is a purpose for it here, although that purpose doesn’t quite flesh itself out all the way. In the present, Howard is being selfish, irrational and even kind of despicable. Sure, he might be having a personal crisis, and the character doesn’t have to be a likable peach—it’s actually rather appreciated this way—but not enough groundwork is laid to make Howard sympathetic or even allow the viewer to understand where he's coming from. In flashbacks, Howard still comes across as an insecure prick to his wife, but what they were once like before he decided to live in the garage and watch his family with binoculars doesn’t help because he was always a prick, having stolen Diane from his best friend, Dirk (Jason O'Mara). He and his wife would play a game—or this is what he tells himself at least—where Diane would openly flirt with other men in order to make Howard jealous, which would then lead to the married couple having sex, and yet he would scold her for undressing in front of their open bedroom windows. What makes this character really tick and do what he does for so long?

“Wakefield” has an odd, fascinating hook ripe for a relatable and thoughtful musing on a human being's desire to hide from reality. This is decidedly tough material to work as a feature-length film, making one want to shake some sense into Howard, even if the character never changes his mind. Because he is an actor who commands the screen with gravitas, Bryan Cranston does bring a degree of vulnerability to the frustrating Howard Wakefield that an otherwise lesser actor couldn’t, so if anyone can make this character remotely believable and compelling, it is Cranston. The rest of the actors are only observed from afar and not actually heard in the present-day scenes; Beverly D’Angelo has no audible lines as Howard’s mother-in-law whom he despises, but Jennifer Garner does enough with very little as Diane.

When more time does pass and Howard grows bummy facial hair, lets all personal hygiene fall by the wayside, and then later ventures outside to a nearby park where he risks being recognized, it becomes harder to buy into the situation. There is a midstream attempt to sentimentalize and soften Howard when he claims finder’s keepers on some old clothes and shoes in his neighbor’s trash and gets chased by a couple of angry Russian dumpster divers, only to find temporary refuge in the basement of a house of special-needs kids, two of whom later bring him chocolate cake. It’s these dips into almost too-cutesy Capra-esque absurdism that nearly derail everything the film works toward. The scenarios Howard imagines for himself lend the film a good amount of humor, though, and while it could be seen as a cop-out, the ending lands with just the right punch and does hold an unexpected emotional resonance. Forcing the viewer to wait with bated breath, the final shot of “Wakefield” immediately gets one discussing.

Grade: B - 

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