WAKEFIELD, drama, not rated, Center for Contermporary Arts,
There are stories that are best left on the page. On the evidence, E.L. Doctorow’s 2008 offering, “Wakefield,” is such a story.
It’s a tale of a man who returns late one evening from his New York City law firm to his home in the suburbs, gets distracted by a raccoon in the driveway, winds up evicting raccoon cubs from the attic room above his garage, and stays there for most of the next year, letting his hair and beard grow long and lank, foraging for food in dumpsters, and spying on his wife and twin daughters in the house from his attic window.
This is the material that Robin Swicord (screenwriter of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Memoirs of a Geisha) has chosen, and followed pretty faithfully, for her second directing feature (after
She signed Bryan Cranston for the title and dominant role of Howard Wakefield. Jennifer Garner gets a scattering of scenes as his wife, Diana, and a few other actors earn a day’s pay.
But it’s really all about Cranston, and he does yeoman work. He supplies virtually all the film’s dialogue, or monologue, mostly in voice-over (much of which is cut and pasted from the Doctorow narrative). Wakefield enjoys reciting out loud from his hideaway what he imagines the family and friends in the house are saying, as he spies on them through a pair of binoculars discovered in a picnic basket among the attic junk. And he starts talking to himself, as people living alone sometimes do.
We pick up Wakefield in his New York mode, striding through Grand Central Station with his briefcase, grabbing a cup of coffee, and passing a couple of homeless people as he sprints for his commuter train. When it breaks down not far from his station, he makes his way home on foot. But instead of going in to greet his family and explain his lateness, he winds up following the course described above.
Diana grows worried and calls the police, who come, ask a few questions, and leave, smirking about wayward husbands. That’s the last of their involvement, and the first of the implausibilities that dog this movie. Nobody returns to search the premises or further investigate the disappearance.
At first Howard sneaks into the house occasionally while everybody’s out, to shave and grab some clean socks. But soon these niceties slide away. As the months go by, he ventures out more boldly, even in daylight, scavenging for food and clothing and letting himself be seen in public secure in the knowledge that nobody will recognize him behind all that matted hair and beard.
Unrelieved, this would quickly get as tedious to watch as you can imagine it would be to live. The movie tackles this problem with flashbacks. We see Howard with Diana, playing a little game of sexual jealousy in which he interprets her innocent chatting with other men at parties as flirting, picks a fight when they get home, and uses it as an aphrodisiac to spark some hot sex. “It works,” he notes in voice-over, “until it doesn’t.” Eventually she gets tired of this game. And eventually he gets tired of her. As he’s traveling toward home that fateful night, she calls his cellphone, and he switches it off. He grouses to himself about being an outsider in his own family. But he’s such a selfcentered creep that we feel no sympathy for him.
In another flashback, Wakefield reflects on how his courtship of Diana was triggered by the fact that his friend Dirk was in love with her. He lied and cheated to win her, but now he wonders how sincere his feelings were. “Would I have wanted her if she weren’t my best friend’s girl?”
There is very little to like in this guy. As he perches at his attic window, cackling with self-congratulatory glee as he watches Diana go through stages of anger, concern, panic, grief, and eventually adjustment to his absence, audiences will be intrigued perhaps by the premise of the story, but will feel little sympathy or identification with its central character. “Who hasn’t had the impulse to put his life on hold for a moment?” Howard asks rhetorically. Do not expect a show of hands.
The Doctorow short story (itself a reworking of a story of the same name by Nathaniel Hawthorne) handles the material with less in-your-face obnoxiousness. The reader can insert himself into the first-person narrative without the hard identification a specific actor, even one as good as Cranston, must bring. Doctorow’s Wakefield seems to slide into his situation almost unawares, whereas Cranston appears to take selfish delight in his choice.
Both versions end abruptly in the same place. In the story, it carries a nice literary ring of irony. In the movie, it feels like a cop-out. — Jonathan Richards