“Wow, this feels like the movie version of a New Yorker short story,” I thought while watching Wakefield and feeling extremely sophisticated. “I should work that into my review!” I thought. “Something along the lines of, 'If you enjoy wealthy middle-aged suburbanites in search of authenticity,’ and so on.” This was going to be a very sophisticated review. Then, just to cover my bases, I googled “Wakefield New Yorker short story” and... yeah. It actually was one. By E. L. Doctorow, no less.
So there goes that idea. But I’ll say this: Wakefield is a well-adapted New Yorker short story—with all the baggage you’d expect. The titular middle-aged suburbanite is Howard Wakefield (Bryan Cranston), a successful corporate litigator married to a lithe former dancer who now works at the county art museum (Jennifer Garner, naturally). In a fit of pique, or perhaps out of a long unexpressed existential malaise, Howard decides to abandon his family and live, unknown to them, in the attic of a carriage house next door.
It’s a clever conceit, akin to a feature-length depiction of watching one’s own funeral. Writer/director Robin Swicord does a good job pruning and rearranging the original story while keeping the overall structure nearly identical, and including a fair bit of Doctorow’s dry, sardonic prose as voiceover. She also wisely sands down a few of the story’s more problematic elements and expands on an interesting psychosexual dimension that’s only hinted at in the text.
The problem is the story itself, which can never quite decide if Wakefield is a delusional asshole (yes) or a noble hermit (probably not). It’s the sort of mild dissonance that probably works better in the New Yorker than a feature-length film, and, well, guess which one you’re watching.