Wakefield

May 28, 2017 at 6:47 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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“The quality of mercy is not strained.” Wakefield quotes the Bard in what may be the pivotal moment of this evocative and sometimes muddy parable. And like “The Merchant of Venice,” this is definitely a parable, though perhaps more reminiscent of “The Prodigal Son” or “The Good Samaritan,” in that it almost seems to be a morality tale. What makes a man who he is? Is he defined by his job, his wife, his kids, his wealth, the choices he makes, his selfishness, selflessness, self-awareness? “Wakefield” seems to try and tackle all of these questions in 105 minutes. The film is based almost word-for-word on the E.L. Doctorow short story of the same name published in the New Yorker in 2008. In it, Howard Wakefield (Bryan Cranston) returns home from work late one night and decides to spend the night in the storage space above the garage and then never leaves. From that vantage point, he watches his family struggle with his disappearance, grieve and start to move on. It’s an odd and utterly unrealistic premise but Doctorow and director Robin Swicord are going after things more important than reality; they want to give us truth. This seems to be so much a story of its time. A middle-aged American man who appears to have it all (the wife, the kids, financial security, etc.) but feels trapped by the routine, the safe predictability, of his life. I suspect this character resonates with many many man today. The film plays out a fantasy that has probably run through these men’s heads countless times. And, it seems to be suggesting to them, you’re self-involved and casually cruel because nothing in your comfortable existence holds you accountable. In “Wakefield,” we spy on Wakefield’s unraveling in the same way he spies on his family. The entire movie rests on Bryan Cranston’s performance. He is in virtually every scene and has the vast majority of the lines. Fortunately, Cranston is a fantastic actor and this film allows him to showcase his talent. He gives a brilliant, sometimes absurd, sometimes deeply touching, performance. Unfortunately, I felt as though I should have been more moved than I was. I suspect the film would be much more affecting for someone who has been on either side of that struggle, but having never chosen to go the wife and kids route, there was little for me to connect to. So, despite the power of Cranston’s performance, it never landed deeply with me. That said, I still respect a film that asks tough questions of its audience and then doesn’t give us pat answers. The film ends word-for-word as the story did; as it should. And we are left to ponder the implications.

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