TELLURIDE – Have you ever just wanted to check out on life? Maybe put everything on hold for a moment? Maybe you’ve even thought, “Hey, I can just go live up in the top floor above the garage and no one will notice I’m there for almost a year.” Sounds fun doesn’t it? Well, if you’re curious to see how this preposterous scenario plays out, then Robin Swicord’s “Wakefield” is for you.
Initially the premise is sort of intriguing. Howard Wakefield (Bryan Cranston), who generally answers to just his last name, is a Manhattan corporate lawyer who is obviously bored with the current suburban existence he returns to every night. His wife Diana (Jennifer Garner) is seemingly so beautiful and kind that it starts to be annoying (to Wakefield anyway). And, like most Dads, his teenage twin daughters really want nothing to do with him. One night, after a power outage ends his train commute far from the station, he finds himself pondering his current state of affairs on the long walk home. When he strolls down his driveway he discovers a raccoon near the garage directly behind the house. He throws his briefcase at the animal only to see it go inside a stairwell that goes to the second floor above the garage. Resigned to make sure the animal does no damage he goes inside and scares it out. While in the seldom-used room he notices it’s primary oval window looks straight into the kitchen and eating area of the back of the house (the window is shaped like a peephole, get it?). And much to his enjoyment, he just can’t stop watching his family through it.
As he tells us — and he tells us a lot because almost the entire movie is his voiceover — he and Diana used to play a game where she would flirt with another man at a social gathering to make him jealous. They would return home, argue and then have great sex. Wakefield, it seems, gets off on watching other people and figuring out what they are doing. It simply entertains him. After falling asleep in a chair in the room he awakes the next morning and once again can’t stop looking at the events going on in the house. Before he knows it, things escalate, and he’s spent days and then weeks living above the garage, and no one seems to care enough to look for him. Soon months pass. He’s eating food thrown out by his neighbors, peeing in bottles, and crapping in a plastic bag he throws out every now and then.* But, he’s still entertained watching his family move on without him (and by the way, they move on pretty quickly).
*How Diana would never notice this smelly bag he’s dumping in their own garbage bins, the same ones she walks by every day to her car, is just one example of the film’s gaps of logic.
Ostensibly a homeless person at this point, with dirty clothes, long hair and a scraggly beard, Wakefield can walk through town and hang in the park with no one recognizing him. One day a young child even comes up and gives him a dollar without Wakefield asking for it. There appears to be no plan or end game to this either. Wakefield does worry that Diana might have to sell the house, and with it his living arrangements, when things appear to get tight financially, but that turns out to be a fleeting concern. Even when winter arrives and he gets sick from the extreme cold you still don’t see where this is all going. Moreover, you don’t care.
Swicord, a longtime Hollywood screenwriter who previously directed “The Jane Austen Book Club,” is also responsible for the screenplay. Her biggest mistake is that for all his witty wisecracks, put downs and smart observations, Wakefield is first and foremost an asshole. As the movie progresses he explains, among other things, how he basically stole Diana right out and under from his best friend Dirk (Jason O’Mara) who she was dating at the time. He’s pretty much a misogynist and seemingly has no respect for anyone other than himself. What a guy, right?
The picture’s other major miscalculation is having Wakefield narrate at least 80% of a 2-hour long film. Yep, almost the entire movie finds the lead character explaining to the audience what is going on. That might have worked for a short or in small doses, but in this case it makes the entire endeavor feel repetitive and drag along at a snail’s pace.
It goes without saying that Cranston has a lot to carry on his shoulders and he does an admirable job. It’s hard not to laugh every so often at one of Wakefield’s snide remarks and that’s effectively because of how Cranston sells it. But even this accomplished actor can’t make you feel any sympathy for a character whose actions defy convention in the most unimaginative ways (Swicord attempts to soften Wakefield in the third act by introducing two neighborhood teens suffering from Down Syndrome who befriend him, but by then, it’s far too late).
Most of Garner’s performance is from a distance and without dialogue (or dialogue you can’t hear). She a pro’s pro who probably sells the film’s concept more than Cranston does. It’s just frustrating that her character is an unknowing passive victim to her husband’s warped breakdown (if that’s really the excuse of what happened to him).
What’s most disheartening about “Wakefield” is that if you put in the investment to endure most of its character’s B.S. you have to expect some sort of payoff at the end. You assume there must be some twist coming or that Diana will get to confront him about what he’s done, but – spoiler alert – there isn’t. The film ends with a gigantic thud, one that feels like a major cop out that makes you head for the exit shaking your head, and never wanting to think about it again. [D]