Directed by: Robin Swicord.
Written by: Robin Swicord based on the short story by E.L. Doctorow
Starring: Bryan Cranston (Howard Wakefield), Jennifer Garner (Diana Wakefield), Ian Anthony Dale (Ben Jacobs), Beverly D'Angelo (Babs), Jason O'Mara (Dirk Morrison), Pippa Bennett-Warner (Emily), Ellery Sprayberry (Giselle), Victoria Bruno (Taylor).
There are some movies – even good (or great) ones – that don’t leave you much to discuss when you walk out of the theater. Sure, when you leave Baby Driver for example, you can discuss the wicked use of music, the car choreography, the cleverness of the whole enterprise – and you could probably watch Baby Driver a dozen times or more and never be bored, as that movie is pure entertainment. But as far as digging deeper into the meaning of it all, there just isn’t much there. A film like Wakefield is kind of the opposite – it’s not a particularly good movie, and when I saw that it was based on a short story by the legendary E.L. Doctorow, I imagined it as an earlier one – something written back in the 1960s or 1970s, and uneasily updated to modern times, only to be shocked to find that the short story was written in 2008. It’s a film that would make an interesting double bill with Frank Perry’s The Swimmer (1968) – based on the John Cheever short story. That film isn’t perfect, but oddly, is perfect in its imperfections if that makes sense, and tells a similarly strange story that would seem to be more suited for the page – where its metaphors more easily live – than on the screen, where they have to be visualized. It’s an odd film, not great, but not bad – but the type that if you saw with someone right before dinner, your mealtime conversation would be spent solely on this movie.
In the film, Bryan Cranston plays Howard Wakefield, a New York lawyer, who lives in the suburbs. One day, after a long commute, he arrives home, but ends up in the garage instead of the house – the garage, which was a window that looks into his house. He spends some time watching his family, and then falls asleep – waking up the next day, not sure what to do, he decides to do the strangest thing he can – simply stay up there, and keep watching. It’s clear his marriage to Diana (Jennifer Garner) isn’t particularly good – we see flashbacks to their married life – and how it started – and it’s not hard to see that Howard is an asshole, and that his two teenage daughters almost completely ignore him. So he sits up there, and feels superior to them – and superior to the other people he sees. He does have to come down and scavenge for food at times, and over time, he looks more and more like the hobo he has pretty much become. Meanwhile, he stays up there, and just keep watching.
In the lead role, Cranston truly is wonderful – one of the greatest actors of prestige TV is finally given a movie role with similar depth, and he’s not going to let it go. But Wakefield is no Walter White (although, I suspect the pair have more in common than either would want to admit) – as Wakefield is barely able to hide his misanthropy, his disdain for everyone and everything around him. He is a narcissist, believing himself to be so able to see through the trappings of his life before, and what he has now. It’s a plum role to be sure, and Cranston makes the most of it. Jennifer Garner is hampered somewhat by the fact that we either see her silently, or in flashbacks from the point-of-view of Wakefield himself – but she does a wonderful job of showing us just how much about her Wakefield is missing about her. She remains a mystery, somewhat, right up until the final moments – but one thing is for sure, she isn’t the woman Wakefield thinks she is.
There is more I admire about the film – not least of which is that unlike most Sundance ready American indies, which has become as clichéd and predictable as Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters, Wakefield is going for something completely different. This isn’t a quirky film about an eccentric who learns some sort of heartfelt lesson – the film keeps priming us to think Wakefield is going to have an epiphany, which never comes, but really a dark story – and a darkly funny one – of suburban malaise. Sure, that’s not new territory – and Wakefield is no match for films like Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, Lynch’s Blue Velvet or the previously mentioned The Swimmer in that regard – but it’s willing to try and go there, and for that, I admire it.
Having said all of that, I cannot quite say that Wakefield, as a whole, really works. The premise itself is weird, and hard to believe, so I think the tone of the film needed to match that (again, like The Swimmer did – it knows its premise isn’t believable, and has a surreal tone to match). Still, though, I’m happy to have seen the film – and would have liked it even more had I watched it with someone, so I could argue and debate it.