HIFF Review: Wakefield

Reviewed By Lesley Coffin. (Part of coverage of the Hampton International Film Festival)

Wakefield has become one of the most buzzed about titles coming out of the festivals such as Telluride and Toronto this year. It has received significant praise for the lead performance by Bryan Cranston, quickly turning into Hollywood’s male equivalent for Meryl Streep. And while the film was similarly praised when it played at the Hampton International Film Festival, my reaction to the film was of overwhelming disappointment in a movie which left me feeling like the film’s primary impression was a prime example of self-indulgence; on the part of both the director and lead.

Wakefield, based on a short story by EL Doctorow, is the remarkably simple story about a narcissist, well off businessman named Howard Wakefield (played by Cranston) who while on his way home from work one evening decides simply to not return and instead hides in the attic of his garage. The reason seems two-fold. He is a man tired of his mundane life but also has an unhealthy desire to observe his wife with suspicion and jealousy. But ultimately, he is a narcissist and jerk who wants to torture his family with the worst hidden camera show prank. And for the next two hours, the audience is forced into that cramped attic with this unpleasant man to listen to his “confession.”

The film is clearly risky premise as the film commits almost entirely to the conceit of the premise; that the film will be told almost entirely from the perspective of this one character during his solitude. Unlike a film like All is Lost, Cranston is given a narrative thread, which so dominates the film to so much, Cranston’s voice over often reminded me of a book on tape. The narration is unrelenting and never as clever as writer-director Robin Swicord may think, and eventually keeps audiences at a distance with the character. Howard isn’t just an unpleasant character but being exclusively in his company is an unpleasant cinematic experience.

Cranston has become one of Hollywood’s most beloved and respected actors, almost universally praised (and frequently nominated for awards). Long before Breaking Bad, I considered him one of the most underrated actor on TV. But recently he has becoming an actor I almost dread seeing in leading roles. His performances now feel too self-aware to benefit the entire film. His characters often feel flashy and obvious demonstrations of his “acting,” rather than sense his connect to the character’s internal life and emotional journey throughout the film.

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I also didn’t see Cranston developing much of a connection on screen opposite Jennifer Garner, who is saddled with one of the worst written “wife characters” in some time (if the characters is meant to be satirical, it failed to make an impression). Garner and Cranston have little time to establish a relationship before she simply becomes an observed character, singularly through his eyes. And the flashbacks meant to provide background on their marriage are remarkably unconvincing. The flashbacks are so poorly executed and feel haphazardly placed within the film, the decision to include them at all is almost baffling. They do essentially nothing but increase our pity for Garner’s character…not only for having to endure the mysterious loss of her husband but having to tolerate such a man in her life all together.

Swicord’s directing is technically capable, but lacking in a personal touch and perspective on the story. After watching the film, I wondered what about the story, character, or themes made this a necessary film for Swicord to have made. And yet, a number of choices feel as if they have been wrapped in a blanket of “importance”, a status the film never earns. The thematic ideas are similar to films from long ago like The Swimmer or Man with Grey Flannel Suit, which cracked the shell of normalcy to see the dissatisfaction in suburban life. There is nothing new on screen to suggest a contemporary understanding of how marriage and gender roles have evolved, in films such as Revolutionary Road or The Secret Lives of Dentists. The narrow focus on a character like Cranston’s feels so predictable and convenient, the film feels like primary evidence of why there has been such a demand for more diverse storytelling. This middle aged, white, upper-class man’s complaints are never as urgent, identifiable, or specific as they need to be to make Wakefield a film worth investing one’s time.

Lesley Coffin: Is editor and founder of Movies, Film, Cinema. A writer with a masters degree from NYU’s Gallatin School in biographical studies and star theory. She wrote the biography on Lew Ayres (Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector) and Hitchcock’s Casting (Hitchcock’s Stars). Lesley currently freelances as a critic and interviewer for a number of sites, including regular contributions to The Interrobang, Pink Pen, and Young Folks, and previously wrote for The Mary Sue and Filmoria. (Twitter handle @filmbiographer, website lesleycoffin.com)

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