Bryan Cranston as Howard Wakefield gives the sort of nuance humanity that character-driven pieces should give. Based of E.L. Doctorow’s short story, Robin Swicord’s film adaptation plays like a moving novel. You feel the literary inspiration, in part, because the character of Wakefield is so fleshed from Swicord’s direction. In 106 minutes, you enter the world of a selfish man bored with the life he built and quietly journeying in isolation to observe how he constructed such a dissatisfying life for himself.
It is not easy to say that your family dissatisfies you, but Wakefield is Howard’s spiritual, lone journey to discovering how he let down himself and thus his family. From the beginning, Howard is not likable. He is self-centered and constantly blaming his family for the inner exhaustion eating his soul. He works hard, makes good money, and has a vivacious sex life with his wife that is based on his jealousies; he only wants her when he thinks other men are pursuing her, which is a problem he never gets over. One thing, I relished from both the film and Cranston’s superb acting is that Howard becomes a better person, but not necessarily a great one. Being years hiding in an attic from his family, stirs in Howard a humility for how much love and patience they gave him despite his lack of reciprocation. Yet, like every human being, we have flaws that we cannot ever shake, but we can learn to tame. For Howard Wakefield, selfishness is his Achilles’ Heel, of which he learns to walk better with throughout the film. Swicord’s direction does well to construct the emotional character arch of Howard Wakefield, and distantly paints the values and worth of his family, which includes wife Diana Wakefield (Jennifer Garner) and his daughters.
Wakefield is 100% from Howard’s perspective, which is why I applaud Swicord for making a film solid and brawn enough to keep the audience grasped through the characters flaws. As a woman watching Howard mistreat, degrade, and blame his wife for all his unhappiness, it was hard not to stay stuck in an eternal eye-roll. Yet, Garner is quietly magnetic as Diana Wakefield; a role that is more physically expressive because, for the most part, we are just watching Howard watch her through a window in the attic. As she mourns the believed loss of her husband and repairs her life for her daughters, Garner’s face glows with emotionality and confusion; she is a single mom left to heal from the torrid relationship of her abruptly ended marriage. Again, it is hard to love Howard as he watches his family mourn and wife possibly accused for her involvement in his “disappearance”. Yet, Cranston is so charming by nature that you ride the mental, physical, and sentimental waves that writhe as Howard Wakefield does what we all should do: grow up. Ultimately, Wakefield is about a middle-aged man realizing that pettiness is not only a child’s flaw but an adult one’s as well, and gratitude for what you have is the only way to combat it.
Wakefield comes out on May 19 At The Landmark Sunshine in NYC.