“What is so sacrosanct about a marriage and a family that you should have to live in it day after day?” That’s a hell of a thing to hear from a guy like Howard Wakefield (Bryan Cranston), a wealthy Westchester lawyer with a beautiful wife (Jennifer Garner) two healthy teenage daughters, and a house so big that someone could rather comfortably reside in its two-story garage.
But Howard — whose sniveling inner monologue seeps into almost every moment of the jagged, acidic comedy that shares his name — isn’t your typical bored white-collar suburbanite. He’s not Lester Burnham, numb with ennui. He’s not Brad Adamson in “Little Children,” desperate to feel another woman’s touch. He’s just an asshole, one of the most selfish characters you’ll ever see on a movie screen, and it’s a strange pleasure to watch him self-destruct when he realizes that he no longer envies his own life.
Faithfully adapted from E.L. Doctorow’s 2008 short story of the same name, writer-director Robin Swicord (“The Jane Austen Book Club”) has crafted a sharp and singularly bitter portrait of man at his worst. Literary to the extreme, “Wakefield” unfolds like a thought experiment without a hypothesis: One ordinary evening, on his commute home from the city, a power outage inspires Howard to slip away from his life.
Chasing after a (very photogenic) raccoon as it runs into the second floor of the family garage, Howard notices that a peephole in the musty storage space looks directly into the kitchen where his wife, Diana, is waiting for him. Watching her from across the driveway and reflecting on a recent fight they had — a fight that began with Howard baselessly accusing Diana of flirting with another man at a local lawn party — Howard falls asleep. Upon waking up the next morning, Howard decides that he would rather not bother explaining to his spouse why he didn’t come home the previous night. So, naturally, he commits to a new life as a squatter in his own garage.
Swicord is a bold filmmaker (she would have to be in order to reckon with such off-putting source material), and she finds a number of clever ways to enliven Doctorow’s potentially airless text. For one thing, she isn’t afraid to make choices that slyly undercut everything her protagonist says about his situation. When Howard complains about feeling like he’s constantly under his wife’s surveillance, Swicord cuts to his voyeuristic POV. When Howard comes to the conclusion that suburban life is somehow against nature, she ambushes him with one of cinema’s most violent mosquitoes. Howard is a nasty piece of work, and Swicord never makes any excuses for him.
Neither does Cranston, who has always delighted in the dark side, and seems to be having the time of his life playing a character who would make Walter White look like father of the year by comparison. In fact, the actor might be having too much fun. While Garner delivers a richly textured performance as a woman who’s struggling to reconcile her new reality with her feelings of loss (or lack thereof), Cranston descends into giddy caricature, cackling like a madman as Howard stops shaving, starts eating trash, and altogether turns into a hobo. On one hand, that exaggerated portrayal is meant to be exasperating. On the other, Cranston’s decision to crank the energy up to 11 right from the beginning leaves him nowhere to go, and makes a turbulent character feel noxiously static over a long 106 minutes.
The film, much like the short story, excels at the details (notice how neither Howard nor Diana ever take off their wedding rings), but dwells on the obvious. Swicord, perhaps a touch too reverent of Doctorow’s writing, can’t quite solve the limited emotional range of her protagonist.
Along those same lines, she preserves plot threads that don’t survive the adaptation process — the bit about the mentally handicapped children who live next door and bring Howard food may have worked on the page, but on screen it only serves to distract from the focus on Howard’s marriage, and his ever fragile masculinity. Cranston is so heightened that we don’t need any additional help to gawk at the character’s gift for always seeing himself as one of life’s great victims. What starts as funny soon grows tedious. Still, the sense of overkill that makes “Wakefield” so difficult to recommend is the same one that makes the film so difficult to reject.
“Wakefield” premiered at the 2016 Telluride Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.