“Wakefield,” an intensely psychological and frustratingly literary film, can best be described as part “American Beauty,” part “American Psycho.” That is, it relies on its protagonist’s narration to explore both a midlife crisis and an obsessive descent into insanity — but ultimately falls short of fulfilling both tasks.
Director Robin Swicord, who wrote the screenplay for “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” brings to life a fascinating inspiration for the film: a 2008 short story by celebrated writer E.L. Doctorow. While the premise works in its literary form, the novelty of the setting and intrigue of the unreliable narrator are lost in the story-to-screen translation. The film is limited by the constraints of its medium; it externalizes the protagonist’s inner thoughts, which are filtered through an actor’s performance rather than interpreted firsthand, as is possible for a reader. Still, despite the adaptation’s failures, “Wakefield” is partially redeemed by the unparalleled Bryan Cranston, who surpasses the script to meticulously convey his character’s shame, possessiveness and paranoia in what essentially becomes a one-man show.
Howard Wakefield (Bryan Cranston) is a New York City lawyer emotionally distanced from his family and drained by the monotony of his daily work life. He returns to his suburban home one evening and, on a whim, decides to wander into the attic above his nearby garage. From a small glass window, he observes his wife Diana (Jennifer Garner) and two teenage daughters and wonders what their lives would look like without him. Prompted by his curiosity, Howard stays in the attic for months to study how his loved ones handle his absence.
We pity Howard at first; we can understand how the tedium of law cases and daily commutes can build to his initial sense of panic and lead him to find some sort of fictive solace in his escape. But gradually, Swicord unveils the disturbing extent of Howard’s anxieties. We see the film unfold through Howard’s mind; he voyeuristically examines Diana’s every move, imagines elaborate scenarios that are occurring in his home and hallucinates about accidental encounters with his family. Our curiosity builds with each scene — over and over the audience is left unsure whether Swicord is portraying a real event or simply another illusion born of Howard’s deteriorating mental state.
Though the film is told entirely from Howard’s perspective, Swicord takes us into Diana’s world through intermittent flashbacks. We learn that she sacrificed her passion for dance to obtain a degree in art history, that she had an affair with Howard while she was dating his best friend and that her strained relationship with her husband was an impetus for his sudden withdrawal. Even with just a handful of lines, Garner is excellent, inhabiting Diana’s mystery and sensuality through sheer physical expression.
Yet, where Diana had the potential to be a complex and sophisticated character, she exists solely as a plot device; she is seen almost entirely through Howard’s eyes, serving only as a measure of his internal progress.
The mistreatment of Diana’s character can in large part be attributed to the source material, and it’s difficult to fault Swicord for adhering so closely to Doctorow’s story. “Wakefield” (the film) is remarkably similar to “Wakefield” (the short story). But as a whole, the film adaptation could have been more effective had it prioritized an engaging plot over a reliance on its premise and narrator.
Cranston capitalizes on the material he is given for his narration, but even he can’t allude to the “quarrels” between Howard and Diana or recite clunkier lines like “I’ve come into my senses … fully” without giving away the film’s conspicuously literary feel. The dialogue is poetic but inconceivable, making the film as a whole feel stiff and distant.
Despite Cranston’s strong performance, “Wakefield” gets too caught up in its craft and intellect to truly entertain. Howard Wakefield is too bizarre to reflect or represent reality but never bizarre enough to be a thoroughly gripping character. Much like the film as a whole, he is ambiguous and disorienting, leaving audiences with more questions than answers.