Since the end of his run on Breaking Bad, Bryan Cranston has built a resume of interesting roles in both TV and movies. When watching Wakefield, I couldn't help but think of Cranston's role in Godzilla, which was a decent role in a pretty great film. Unfortunately, as we all know by now, the man wasn't used nearly enough in that film, and it makes for an interesting inverse of his latest film, which uses him in almost every frame, but doesn't have as strong a narrative to support him.
Howard Wakefield (Cranston) decided to disappear one day. Hiding in the attic of a storage house he owns, he lets his wife (Jennifer Garner) and family think that he's disappeared. As time passes, and the ruse continues to grow, Howard continues to ponder his relationship with his family, and whether or not it's worth reappearing. But the longer he waits, the more obstacles stand in the way of him and his family.
Based on an E.L. Doctorow short story, Wakefield is a concept that would have been better served as a one man show, or maybe even a short film. With most of the film's narrative focusing on Howard's view of events, it's a story that's not exactly the most cinematic of sorts, though it could be easily made as such. But instead, we're given a finished film that focuses 90% of its time on a central lead. Lucky for us, Bryan Cranston is that lead, and he's more than up to the task at hand.
Cranston, as usual, shines in the role of the Wakefield patriarch, as he transforms from a pretty despicable and self-loathing character into someone who seems to have learned his lesson. Both sides of the coin are portrayed with the actor's usual brand of charm, smarminess, and transformative aplomb. We do get to see him interact with Jennifer Garner, as well as equally charming co-star Jason O'Mara, both of whom he really sizzles with. But make no mistake, Cranston not only carries this film, he lifts it a good foot off of the ground from where it would have stood without him.
Your enjoyment of Wakefield will depend on your tolerance of the absurd, as well as patience for this character's slow burn into awareness. At the beginning of the summer movie season, you'll start to see counter-programming efforts such as this taking up real estate, hoping they'll capitalize on audiences that are looking for more than franchise bait or explosions. Even those audiences might have a hard time getting through this film, however, as its main character and conceit will have them shouting, "Why?!"
If I had to choose one reason to see Wakefield, it'd definitely be Bryan Cranston. Without his acting chops on full blast, turning this indulgent short story into a nuanced portrait of how a person can change merely by walking away from themselves, it wouldn't nearly be as effective. That's just a pitfall of how much the entire affair invests in one character's fate and worldview. Should the film have decided to branch out into other people's viewpoints a little more, and show how Howard's life effected their as opposed to having him tell us as such, it might have been a more well-rounded picture. But even with this fault, Wakefield gives us an intriguing, modern day meditation on transcendentalist themes, with a riveting performance from Bryan Cranston at its very core.