starring Bryan Cranston, Jennifer Garner, Jason O'Mara, Beverly D'Angelo
screenplay by Robin Swicord, based on the story by E.L. Doctorow
directed by Robin Swicord
by Walter Chaw Angry businessman Howard Wakefield (Bryan Cranston) tunes in and drops out when, after chasing a raccoon into the unused attic of his garage, he decides to live there for a few months, spying on his wife Diana (Jennifer Garner) and their twin "budding adolescent" girls (as E.L. Doctorow, author of the story upon which this is based, calls them). There's a 1990 Jan Egleson film called A Shock to the System that sees a Howard Wakefield type played by Michael Caine mordantly, hilariously deciding to take control of his life through a series of carefully-planned murders. Robin Swicord's Wakefield aspires to be an updating of this but is hampered by the fact of Robin Swicord. Take the moment where Howard watches his long-suffering spouse dump his dinner on top of a bag of garbage in their driveway. Cut to the next day, with Howard opening the lid and looking down at it. Flashback to Diana dumping the dinner on top of a bag of garbage in their driveway. Yes, Swicord is so literal-minded and inept that she has offered gaffed viewers a flashback to a scene that just happened.
What could be the thinking that drives this decision? Did test audiences complain that they couldn't understand where the trash came from? That they did not remember that two minutes before in actual time Diana deposited these leftovers in this way? Or is it more likely that Swicord wrote a shooting script that included instructions to flash back to this scene two pages ago in case there were any Faulknerian idiot man-children in the house? There's no rhythm to the scene, so it's not a sort of rhymed visual poetry, though there is the sense of general confusion one usually gets when confronted by someone intent on carefully explaining something you already understand. When this happens, the instinct is to wonder if this person thinks you're stupid. In truth, they're probably the stupid one. When a man does it to a woman, it's called "mansplaining." When a filmmaker does it to her audience, it's called, "Oh, was this directed by Robin Swicord?"
Swicord's only other movie as director is The Jane Austen Book Club, which is also based on literature (a book; Wakefield was originally published in THE NEW YORKER) and is one of the worst, plainest, most literal-minded movies ever made. It's an abomination to sense and taste. It demonstrates a tin ear and, worse, an almost complete inability to ken the meaning and nuance of the source material. It's appalling. Swicord is a middlebrow meat grinder: something alive goes in one end, something easily-digestible excretes out the other. (This also explains her screenplay for Memoirs of a Geisha, which lands just this side of being a hate crime.) The problems of Wakefield are manifold and attributable entirely to Swicord's inability to understand the tone of what she's reading or, at least, to translate that tone into another medium. She's faithful to the key developments of the short story, for the most part, but decides to make two key elisions. The first is the use of the word "retard," the second is having one of the "retards" dry-hump Wakefield as he lies senseless with fever. She replaces this scene from the story with a now-African-American and angelic Emily (Pippa Bennett-Warner) giving the ailing Wakefield piping hot chicken soup, the better to nurse the derelict back to health. It's fascinating to attempt to excavate what exactly is going on in Swicord's mind here, if not particularly difficult. See: it's very tricky to portray mental disability in an uncomfortably human way, so why not replace that with super-duper-magic-negro (and disabled) people? That makes every elderly, white, upper-middle class, college-educated member of the target audience feel comfortable and warm.
Meanwhile, not having Wakefield refer to the two disabled kids--who materialize in the story for no reason but to make Wakefield seem like an asshole--with a hurtful epithet prevents the audience from truly developing a suspicion, if not open dislike, of him: There's no earthly reason Swicord could have for making Wakefield more likeable. Wakefield, by dint of being played by Bryan Cranston, is innately likeable. Cast John Cusack instead and see what happens. Ray Winstone? M. Emmett Walsh? But have Cranston call two little disabled kids "retards" and now you have something. Swicord compounds her bad decisions and cowardice by adding a bit about how Howard once advocated for the opening of a Down Syndrome treatment facility next door against a suddenly-more-hateful Diana. If there's anything Swicord didn't need to do, it's curb the warmth of the increasingly artificial-seeming Garner.
Swicord's instincts are fatally bad--especially when she's trying to pander. Wakefield is a movie about gross voyeurism and a sociopathic asshole that, somehow, everyone can get behind. The story is a withering critique of not so much the emptiness of Wall St. life and the one-percenters, but the absolute hypocrisy of trust-fund hipsters stretching lines between two trees in the wealthiest mountain towns in the country to get closer to nature...by walking between it, I guess. Howard grows a beard and thrifts for his wardrobe; in his desperation to go off the grid, the only thing he doesn't do is distil his own craft beer with a kit ordered from Amazon and label it with art that his old girlfriend did using her menstrual blood and a loom. He lurks above his garage, shitting in a trash can and emerging at night to scavenge through his neighbour's garbage. In the story, he creeps into other people's houses and takes food. In the film, he does no such thing. Cranston is a tremendously warm and gifted physical comedian. His run as Walter White in "Breaking Bad" will probably be his legacy, but it's his turn as dad Hal in "Malcolm in the Middle" that cements his legend. When Howard runs away from Russian (?!) rival hobos wanting to beat him up for taking a pair of shoes, there's real and palpable confusion as to what's supposed to be evoked because Cranston is very funny and very affable, while Howard appears to be neither.
Curious for a film banking on its novelty as one written and directed by a woman is that its women are brutalized by the script and direction. Diana is made to be wholly unsympathetic and manipulable. The girls, what we see of them, are silly. Howard regards his mother-in-law (Beverly D'Angelo) as a shrill harridan and nothing is offered to belie that interpretation. The one scene Garner does get to play is so gauche that she seems less noble in the face of Howard's psychotic jealousy-as-foreplay than shell-shocked. Or stupid. Every actor in the film is smarter than the material. There's a moment where Howard is watching his wife undressed before a window, and rather than take that opportunity to have Howard jerk off, Swicord throws to another flashback, this one to when Howard warned Diana not to stand naked before un-curtained windows. "There's no one out there, Howard." But there is now, Diana, you fucking bimbo. Oh Howard, right again. The most frustrating thing about Wakefield is how clearly Swicord is trying to draw a critique of masculinity when really the story she has to work with is a critique of class. I'm actually more interested in this scenario from Diana's point-of-view. Imagine an interpretation of Doctorow's story that's like Kaufman's Adaptation.: a reversal of the tale from the feminist perspective. The irony of the whole thing is that in attempting to not turn off any of her "classy" audience with this disgusting little tale of solipsism and disaffection, she's offered up the most eloquent critique of class and its wilful detachment and fatal lack of introspection possible. Buñuel would have had a field day with the beige-pantsuit thinking that informed Swicord's adaptation process. He would've made the movie version of this that mattered, too.