WAKE­FIELD, drama, not rated, Cen­ter for Con­termpo­rary Arts,

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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

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