Review: Wakefield (TIFF 2016)
PLOT: A man (Bryan Cranston) inexplicably abandons his family, moving into the family attic and spying on them from afar.
REVIEW: WAKEFIELD is a movie that would never work were it not for Bryan Cranston’s performance. Literally on-screen every-second of the film, with ninety percent of the dialogue coming from his narration, it’s an acting showcase for the star if there ever was one. Even still, the titular character, Howard Wakefield, is such an egotistical head-case minus any redeeming features that following him around for two hours becomes a bit of an ordeal - Cranston or no Cranston.
It’s certainly a daring effort for director Robin Swicord, with her adapting E.L Doctorow’s short story. It feels like this was an attempt to make a modern story of suburban alienation not unlike the famous Burt Lancaster vehicle from the sixties, THE SWIMMER, but certain things go wrong and make this an overall messy effort. One is the oppressive musical score, which sounds torn out of a sitcom, being alternately overly melodramatic or comical. There also had to be a better way to evoke Wakefield’s thoughts than through narration, as it becomes so over-bearing that it feels at times that we’re listening to Cranston doing an in-character DVD commentary rather than something that actually belongs in the film. The daring art-house version of this movie would have done away with the narration completely and let us make up our own minds about Wakefield’s motivations.
Even if it is a mess, Cranston’s performance is remarkable. Early scenes and flashbacks showing him before moving into the attack allow Cranston to evoke a kind of venal father-figure/husband that maybe only a guy like Jack Lemmon could have ever put over other than Cranston. Shown to be sexually obsessed with his uncommonly beautiful wife (Jennifer Garner - who we observe mostly from afar) and a mostly uncaring dad, Cranston plays Wakefield as amused by her growing panic that he’s either died or left her. He really is a complete bastard, although Cranston somehow manages to humanize him, making us almost empathize with him by the end even if it’s always clear his exercise is wholly ego and less mental illness.
Swicord maybe doesn’t quite trust us to identify with Wakefield, so a somewhat goofy subplot where he’s befriended by two kids with down-syndrome from next door feels a bit like audience manipulation. They’re the only ones he treats with any kindness throughout the film, and if they inspire him to change his way I’m not convinced.
Again, with anyone else in the lead WAKEFIELD would have been a total misfire (albeit an interesting one). Yet, Cranston’s so damn good it now demands to be seen. It’s a true showcase performance for him, and it once again proves how Cranston can humanize absolutely reprehensible people, as he did in ‘Breaking Bad’. Truly he’s one of the greatest actors of our generation, and his acting alone makes WAKEFIELD a notable TIFF title - although its chances of finding an audience seem pretty limited