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by Jay Seaver

"A film about abandonment that sometimes inspires abandoning it."
3 stars

That I had to reach into my pocket to check the ticket stub for title of the movie I just watched before I started writing can't be a good sign, can it? You come up with reasons why this reaction highlights the film's themes - it reflects the utter anonymity and eventual unimportance of its title character, a man who for petulant reasons hides in the attic of his garage rather than enter his house one night and just stays there, or argue that the ideas will seep into one's head even if certain pieces don't impress. It's not a good sign when something flees the brain like that even before one has stepped onto the bus home.

It's got a striking start, admittedly, as Bryan Cranston's Howard Wakefield impatiently marches through Grand Central Station, oblivious to the ornate decoration around him. Writer/director Robin Swicord outlines a lot of her themes visually in the early scenes, as we see Wakefield grumpily darting through the crowds but still vanishing into them, a dissatisfied man who is nevertheless more likely to fade back into the background than come to prominence. The incidents that jar him out of his routine are good foreshadowing, too, as a power outage pushes him out of the familiar if crowded confines of the train and onto the tracks, and his arrival back in his suburb features a great shot of him walking past storefronts with shadowy figures that may be mannequins or people. Swicord's use of the environment is absolutely terrific here, and even when though it doesn't pack quite so much of a punch as the film goes on - as the plot advances, expediency takes precedent over making a visual statement - she still has an eye for making use of space.

Unfortunately, once Howard arrives home and pauses outside his door, narrating his annoyance at the calls from wife Diana (Jennifer Garner) and deciding to cool his heels until he can enter to a better situation, Swicord finds little of interest in him. An already-shaky premise isn't bolstered with intriguing details, and both the events that prolong the situation and the backstory given simply pile up new ways for him to be selfish and unkind, but without him ever actually becoming darkly entertaining in his cruelty, or finding a way to make a late-film change of heart truly seem sincere, should it come. It seems like a waste of Bryan Cranston, most of the time; Howard is a bland fellow, with Cranston seldom given true reign to be truly reptilian or even entertainingly craven, or chew some scenery when the film should have Howard confronted by how his terrible situation is entirely of his own making.

This is likely deliberate, and Swicord's choice to present Howard this way is an indication of how a film can achieve its goals and yet not be very satisfying. Wakefield is, from start to finish, a dive into the mind of an egocentric man with little place in his world for others, including and especially his wife. It is fairly consistent messaging, from Howard's initial annoyance to the flashbacks to his rationale for his actions at the end of the film: Guys like Howard may not be abusive in the traditional physical way, but he's fairly up front about his desire to possess Diana, to the point where he explicitly states that keeping her in limbo is why this vanishing act is better than leaving her. There's irony to it - throughout the movie, his need to not give Diana the upper hand pushes him to further degradations, giving her power that she is entirely unaware of - but ultimately, despite talk of his self-imposed loneliness and apparent change of heart, he's still motivated by not allowing her to freely make a decision. It's all true to character, but eventually seems pointless - Swicord's take on this tale is clear enough that, while there's something well-done in each iteration, the sameness make it drag, and the dedication to Howard's self-centered point of view gives few actors other than Jennifer Garner much to do, though she does fair work in pushing her performance just enough to imply that what we're seeing is exaggerated by Howard's perspective.

This is exacerbated by the narration. The credits mark it as based upon an E.L. Doctorow story (not mentioning the original Nathaniel Hawthorne story Doctorow was updating), and I wonder how much of the narration comes directly from that. There's a clear voice there, a man blind to his toxic masculinity because of his erudition and lack of interest in physical violence, and I'd listen to the audiobook if Cranston were given a little more leeway. Too often, though, it makes what happens on screen just an obvious illustration, especially during the latter part of the movie, not something that helps tell the story itself. The visuals are reflective, but what we see is just what Howard has said he would (or might) do.

Howard's central narration and determination to remain in control likely explains an abrupt ending, which admittedly becomes less frustrating once a viewer pieces together Swicord's themes, structure, and technique. Even with that taken into account, it's kind of not much reward for sitting through such an often passive and occasionally off-putting film. I came out of "Wakefield" feeling like it was probably a fine short prose story, even if I did like some of the things done to make it visual. A day later, I like it a bit more, but still wish it were a more engaging film.

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originally posted: 06/02/17 11:58:05
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2016 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2016 Telluride Film Festival For more in the 2016 Telluride Film Festival series, click here.

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  19-May-2017 (R)
  DVD: 01-Aug-2017

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