Wakefield movie review: man of the house (emeritus)

Wakefield red light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

An appalling elevation of toxic masculinity to something poignant, radical, and heroic. As unpleasant and as passive-aggressive as its horrid protagonist.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): love the cast
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

I wish I could figure out just what the hell writer-director Robin Swicord (The Jane Austen Book Club) thinks she is saying with the appalling Wakefield, a movie as unpleasant and as passive-aggressive as its horrid protagonist. Because all it looks and feels like is an elevation of toxic masculinity — of emotional withdrawal, delusions about one’s own rationality, pretensions about one’s boldness, and disdain for women, among other nasty things — to a level meant to be poignant, radical, and heroictweet all at once. And it’s nothing of the sort.

Rather than face a momentary embarrassment, Howard drops out of his life altogether. Just like a man.

Coming home late from work one night, lawyer Howard Wakefield (Bryan Cranston: Trumbo, Godzilla) decides that he cannot face the nagging and arguing he believes he is in for with his wife, Diana (Jennifer Garner: Danny Collins, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day). So he hides out in the attic of the detached garage of his upscale suburban homestead until she goes to sleep and he can sneak into the house in peace. Except he falls asleep above the garage and doesn’t wake up till morning, and now things will be even worse if he waltzes in after being out all night and has to explain himself. So he decides he will just hide in the garage attic forever. That’s right: Rather than face the momentary embarrassment of having to explain why he didn’t want to come home — which might actually have prompted some discussion of the problems in his marriage and possibly even the beginning of working toward a resolution for them — Howard chooses to drop out of his life altogether.

“Forget sleeping on the sofa. I’m moving into the garage... forever!”
“Forget sleeping on the sofa. I’m moving into the garage… forever!”tweet

To his family — which also includes twin teenage daughters (Ellery Sprayberry and Victoria Bruno) — Howard has seemingly disappeared off the face of the earth. He survives by scavenging garbage, and he fills his days with spying on his wife, an affair that is characterized primarily by contempt for her: for her clear distress over his disappearance, for the emotional support she gets from her mother (Beverly D’Angelo: Vacation, Bounty Killer), for her work as a museum curator she uses to distract herself from her grief, for the passion for dance she gave up. In flashbacks, as he contemplates his relationship with Diana, we see how he won her only through cruelty and manipulation. He doesn’t see her as a person in her own right: she was just a beautiful prize to collect, and then she trapped him by getting pregnant. We may guess that it was that, as well as her insistence on showing herself to be an actual human being, that has annoyed him, that has soured him on her, but we never learn what his disenchantment with her is. In his running narration, Howard shares so many unbelievably hoary and clichéd husband complaintstweet — she is unable to handle taking out the garbage! he always had to wait forever for her to get ready to leave the house! she shops too much! — that it’s difficult to take him seriously. Is he truly this clueless, this regressive, this lacking in understanding? Everything about this entire scenario plays like it has been dropped into 2017 from 1957. (In fact, this is based on a short story by E.L. Doctorow from 2008. You can read it at the New Yorker’s web site. I have not read it; I have no desire to spend any more time with Howard.)

Everything about this scenario plays like it has been dropped into 2017 from 1957.

As a metaphor for how absent many men are in their own lives, well, Wakefield is certainly that.tweet But it does nothing with it except celebrate male emotional distance and avoidance of engaging as something perhaps slightly comic — Howard’s battle with the scavenging raccoons and gangs of gleaners on garbage night are meant to be amusing — but also rather noble and laudable. This is not “a simple abandonment” of his wife and children that Howard is engaging in: “I’ll sustain myself like a castaway, a survivor, undetected. Unshaken, I’ll become the Howard Wakefield I was meant to be.” There’s no hint of the absurdity of that in Wakefield: it is offered at face value, not seen for the pathetic fantasy it is. (I could also go on a long rant, too, about the unacknowledged privilege involved in Howard adopting a “homeless” lifestyle out of choice, and the wealth required to have a secure, private space on your own property in which to pretend to be a solitary castaway, and in which to actually succeed in going undetected by the family you are spying on through their windows.)

Cranston is clearly dedicated to the role, particularly as Howard commits to his absence — the longer he hides, the harder it is to reveal himself — but the actor cannot sell us on an evolution in Howard’s mindset for which there is absolutely no foundation in the script. Wakefield is, ultimately, far too forgiving of Howard and far too staunch in its loyalty to him and his monstrous behavior. Howard does not deserve to be coddled and excused: he deserves a smack upside the head for his selfishness and unwillingness to confront the realities of his own life.

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