In 1957 Vladimir Nabokov published a poem, “The Ballad of Longwood Glen,” about a man who climbed up a tree to retrieve his son’s lost ball and elected never to come down again: “His family circled the tree all day. Pauline concluded: ‘Dad climbed away.’” A similar sort of disappearance—though it proves a temporary one—lies at the heart of “Wakefield,” the film starring Bryan Cranston that Robin Swicord has fashioned from E.L. Doctorow’s 2008 short story, which was in turn inspired by that which Nathaniel Hawthorne included (with the same title) in his “Twice Told Tales” of 1837.
In what might be described as a heightened portrait of the modern American male in mid-life crisis, Bryan Cranston plays Howard Wakefield, a New York lawyer who commutes to the city each day from the house he shares with wife Diana (Jennifer Garner) and two daughters in a handsome suburb. One night the commuter train breaks down, and when Howard gets back to his home town, the electricity is, forcing him to walk home. He gets to the backyard in a bad mood—exacerbated by the fact that he and Diana had quarreled earlier over what he took as flirtatious conduct with a party guest—and spies a raccoon near his garage. Chasing the creature away, he ambles up to the attic of the garage, plops down in a chair there, and, ignoring calls from his wife on his cell, goes to sleep.
The next morning Howard decides to observe his wife and daughters—who, he will tell us in a stream of narration, have come to represent a constant critique of him—through some binoculars he finds among the junk stored in the garage. He watches as Diana becomes increasingly concerned and calls the police. And he decides to stay where he is for awhile.
His residence away from the family, as it turns out, drags on for months. As it does, Howard will watch as Diana is consoled by her best friend Babs (Beverly D’Angelo), for whom he expresses deep dislike, and eventually connects with his colleague Ben Jacobs (Ian Anthony Dale). Among other recollections, he’ll recall—and we see in flashback—how he effectively stole Diana from his onetime best friend (Jason O’Mara) in a calculating, and quite cruel, fashion. He’ll steal into the house occasionally, taking care not to leave any evidence of his presence, and scour the trash for leftovers to eat. He’ll take to walking the streets at night, scavenging for items of clothing and new shoes (and brawling with others who do likewise), and when the occasion permits go to a park unrecognizable in his beard, where he on one occasions is given some money by a child passing with his mother and using it to buy a rare burger. He becomes so bedraggled that he can actually appeal beside a travelling repairman who stops by the house one day, and his wife won’t recognize him.
He will also find a couple of friends in two mentally challenged kids (Pippa Bennett-Warner and Isaac Leyva), part of a group living at the next-door house of a therapist for treatment. They help him escape some scavengers he’s had a run-in with at one point, and will occasionally visit him surreptitiously in his hiding-place. They’ll even help nurse him through a bad bout of the flu.
All of this is much less credible on screen than it was on the page; it’s difficult to accept, in a naturalistic medium like film, that Howard could get away living so close to his family and never getting caught, whereas in short-story form the premise—whether in Hawthorne or Doctorow—comes across as highly implausible but not outrageous. The ability to suspend disbelief is further strained by Cranston’s performance, which—as is true of the actor’s other big-screen turns—is highly theatrical. (It can be argued, in fact, that his approach is more suitable to stage and television than cinema.) Nonetheless he adds a touch of humanity to a character who’s really quite nasty, self-centered and even sadistic, so that you’re less likely to be disgusted by him than you might otherwise have been. And he manages to locate varied levels in the narration that Swicord has lifted, very often verbatim, from Doctorow’s original.
None of the other cast members has much opportunity to impress here—even Garner’s Diana is essentially just a handsome woman seen (and characterized) from Howard’s point-of-view, but they all serve the needs of the adaptation well enough, and Bennett-Warner and Leyva are certainly sympathetic. On the technical side, Jeannine Oppewall’s production design and Andrew Bowden-Schwartz’s widescreen cinematography lend an appropriate touch of magic realism to what is, after all, a pretty fantastic yarn, a quality accentuated by Aaron Zigman’s score. Matt Maddox has edited in the leisurely, unforced rhythm the material demands. The result is a film that fascinates even when it doesn’t fully convince.
Viewers may be disappointed in the abrupt conclusion to “Wakefield.” But if they are, they should blame Doctorow—or Hawthorne. Swicord is faithful to them both.