FILM REVIEW: Bryan Cranston Absent in Family Drama WAKEFIELD
When I first saw Bryan Cranston’s latest drama, Wakefield, at the Telluride Film Festival in September of last year, it was with the heightened expectation that comes with watching anything in which the superb actor is involved in. Straight off his triumphant turn in Trumbo, Cranston arguably could do no wrong. Enter Wakefield, a half-baked adaptation of the novel by E.L. Doctorow.
In the movie, Cranston’s titular character decides to “abandon” his family by moving into the storage garage they keep across the way. He does this because he—like many middle aged men in the era of Trump, I suppose—are tired of their menial, mediocre existences. He does this because despite having a beautiful and doting wife (Jennifer Garner, doing her trademark pouts and plaints), it’s all just too perfect. He does this because despite having two loving children, he’s not doing well enough at work. He does this, more than anything, because he is insufferably self-absorbed.
The theme of suburban anxiety has been done time and time again in film—everyone remembers Kevin Spacey in American Beauty. Doctorow’s treatment is interesting for the solution to it—to become essentially a voyeur in one’s own life, to analyze it from the outside while staying within it. But the character that is used as his vessel is very difficult to sympathize with, and Cranston’s best efforts cannot correct that.
Added to the mix is the highly implausible set up of the whole thing—that the family would never visit the storage shed in their search for the disappeared patriarch. The entire way in which Garner and her kiddos react to the disappearance is, indeed, another narrative flaw in the film. The reaction was perhaps meant to suggest disinterest, but ends up transmitting a lack of seriousness.
As the film wears on, Wakefield becomes more and more disinvested from the society he is swearing off. He essentially turns into a vagabond, scouring trashcans for food and living in filth. It’s not entirely clear why these steps are necessary for him to come to terms with his own existence or to “teach” his family some sort of twisted lesson.
There are some amusing moments in Wakefield, mostly involving Cranston’s character fantasizing about his triumphant return to his family’s life, imagining the foibles he may cause. He derives a particularly sick pleasure in doing so after one of his wife’s ex-boyfriend enters the picture, and those moments do provide genuine laughs.
The film’s biggest shortfall is that it never really answers the questions it sets forth. No insight is offered, for example, into how to cure the anxiety that ails the non-city dwellers. Paula Patton’s murderous alcoholic Girl on the Train perhaps had more to say about this. Nor is the source really explored either, beyond the typical “too much work, not enough recognition” trope that Wakefield so conveniently repeats.
Cranston does give it his best, and his performance is noteworthy as usual. But, in the end, it is perhaps the filmmakers’ own anxiety that is being telegraphed, and not the real concerns of any real people the audience will ever connect with.
Wakefield will have a limited release in theaters on May 19 and will be released on demand the following week.