Review: Bryan Cranston gives Oscar-caliber performance in complex ‘Wakefield’

(IFC) Jennifer Garner and Bryan Cranston play an unhappy rich couple in “Wakefield.”

Scared off by the harsh reviews for “Baywatch” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales”? Then seek out “Wakefield,” an indie drama that proves why Bryan Cranston is one of today’s best actors.

Here’s my review.

Anyone stuck in a nightmare commute on a daily basis understands the urge to want to run away from it all.

For most of us that’s temporary fantasy, a coping mechanism until the gridlock lightens up and we arrive at our doorstep.

Howard Wakefield sees his day-in/day-out routine leading to a dead-end street. The cruelly self-absorbed Howard (Bryan Cranston, nailing the part from start to finish) is the unlikeable but fascinating anti-hero dominating director/writer Robin Swicord’s intense character study, an incisive adaptation of an  E.L. Doctorow story. Her “Wakefield” gives a complex  portrait of a rich white middle-aged man taking drastic steps to upend a cushy life.  Howard is a miserable and insufferable man. His life overflows with the comforts the American Dream. He chooses to abandon it all: his high-paying job as a New York lawyer, his gorgeous, former dancer of a wife (Jennifer Garner, so good here), his two indifferent teenaged daughters and, even, his tony suburban home.

What triggers ditching a manicured New York life is a power blackout that interrupts his train commute ride home.

Through voice-over narration delivered with a thespian’s understanding of timing and modulation, Cranston taps into this affluent white guy’s unstable mindset as he holes himself up in the cluttered attic of the family’s garage and watches rather than participates in their life.

It’s incredibly creepy and unsettling as Howard grows a beard, pees in water bottles and scavenges and fights for food scraps and clothing that’s stuffed in overburdened garbage containers.  Life in the ‘burbs here is consumed and spit out.

Why is Howard making such a U-turn? He claims he wants to feel a part of something wild and elemental. But, he goes about it in a wretched way, thrusting his family into a crisis and then watching them like Jimmy Stewart as if they were specimens.

Well-placed flashbacks provide more context to who Howard is, particularly how his marriage was the result of a jealousy-fueled competition. One of the most telling exchanges comes in an argument between Howard and his wife Diana. She says to him: “All I want to is to get through the day.”

It’s a telling line that reverberates through the entire film. “Wakefield” provides a shattering portrait of a couple and family that has attained it all yet feels wholly unfulfilled.

While its message — money and privilege won’t buy happiness and fosters guilt — isn’t new, the execution by “The Jane Austen Book Club” filmmaker Swicord mostly is as she confines us into the interior musings of a man unhinged. Unfortunately, the ending is a letdown, and it’s a crucial — and frustrating — misstep given the buildup.   

Regardless, Cranston’s performance is masterful, a high mark in the “Breaking Bad” star’s brilliant career. Oscar voter must be reminded about it near year’s end.




Starring: Bryan Cranston, Jennifer Garner, Jason O’Mara, Beverly D’Angelo

Director and writer: Robin Swicord

Running Time: 1 hour, 46 minutes

Rating: R (for some sexual material and language)

Stars: 3 out of 4 stars

Where: Opens May 26 at the Shattuck in Berkeley, the Embarcadero in SF and the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center

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