Bryan Cranston is front and center in Wakefield, a peculiar tale about a distinctly unlikeable fellow. It is the story of a nervous breakdown, which manifests in a truly bizarre way. The film is almost a one-man show. Nearly all of the dialogue is presented as voice over narration. The premise is certainly original. It grabs you at first, but then descends into tedium as the runtime drags considerably. Based on a short story by literary giant E.L. Doctorow, Wakefield is adapted for the screen by writer/director Robin Swicord (Memoirs of a Geisha, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button).
The film opens with sullen New York City litigator, Howard Wakefield (Cranston), heading home to the wealthy suburbs after work. His train loses power en route. Exasperated and with a sour puss, he's forced to walk the remaining distance. When he gets to his driveway, he chases a nuisance raccoon into the attic above his garage. The dusty space, filled with his family's cast off belongings, has a window situated toward his house.
Howard observes his beautiful wife (Jennifer Garner) and two daughters at dinner. She calls his cell phone. He ignores it. Staring petulantly as she takes a bit of culinary revenge for his absence. Howard decides to spend the night in the attic. What happens next is the crux of the film. Howard stays in the attic. Hiding in plain sight, he abandons his life and family completely. Surveilling them from his perch as they deal with his sudden disappearance.
Wakefield takes the idea of getting away from it all to absurdity. The entire film is essentially Cranston watching his family and neighbors from the attic. He sheds the pretense of civilization, becoming an unhinged vagrant in the process. The character delights in watching the aftermath of his departure. He has no feelings of guilt or remorse for his actions. A selfish and jealous man, he learns more about his family from afar than he ever did in their presence.
Wakefield initially intrigues as a character study. Here's a guy who ostensibly has the perfect life. But he doesn't appreciate it, feels trapped, then drops everything and everyone. Cranston's non-stop commentary paints his woes as petty. He doesn't appreciate or understand his good fortune. His truculence is a self inflicted wound. The character's descent ultimately becomes monotonous.
The ending of Wakefield is either infuriating or poetic. On one hand it is apropos to the film's philosophical outlook, but it is also entirely unrewarding. Audiences are not big fans of ambiguity. In some cases it works brilliantly, here it may be perceived as a total cop out. I'm still on the fence.
From IFC Films, Wakefield is a showcase for Bryan Cranston's tremendous talent. There's little else worth recommending. Jennifer Garner is rarely heard. Most of her screen time is seen through windows, an object for commentary. The entire film is really Cranston in an attic with binoculars. Robin Swicord needed to edit for pacing or add more cinematic elements. The gimmick wears thin quickly.