On the page, seguing into the fantastic story of Wakefield comes somewhat naturally. Howard's confessional is more easily read as a metaphor or other-worldly rumination on his life. Seen through peformances by real people, Wakefield is more complicated, although not all of the blame falls on the unique story. Swicord also struggles with standard challenges of adaptation, exacerbated by the fact that "Wakefield" is told in first-person, like a lengthy diary entry. The film version must make do with a running voice-over by Cranston as Howard, a crutch that so few movies know how to use effectively, even in a situation such as this one, where the need for it is more or less inevitable.
At the heart of both the short story and the film is Howard reckoning with his dissatisfaction with his life, and how he found himself in this situation. He is a lawyer of some importance in what appears to be a high-class New York City law firm, and there's evidence that it pays very well. Howard, in his monologue, scoffs at the idea he's doing anything as shallow as unplugging from the modern world, although he naturally finds himself forced to do just that: scrounging for food in the garbage, showering next door at a backyard facility for children with Downs Syndrome, going to the bathroom in bottles and buckets. At the center of his reflection is his relationship with Diana, from his courtship (which may or may not have been little more than a destructive competition with a colleague he hated), their sex life (fueled by roleplaying scenarios where she talks up another man), and his lack of closeness with his daughters (pointedly wondering when it became him versus the three women in his house).
Through this inventory of Howard's life, both the film and story criticize Howard, and rightfully so -- the manipulation he employs in initially winning over his wife is, frankly, gross. Yet, as the film is rooted in Howard's perspective, there is a sense, perhaps, that Swicord dulls the edge of Howard's casual villainy, because we're stuck with him, and in a more pointed sense than the short story. Howard becomes jealous of Diana over the same roleplaying exercise he needs to become turned on, laughs as she struggles to do the chores he hated doing in his absence, and only appears to feel surface remorse when his family reports him missing and starts figuring out how to adapt to life without him, yet seems unexpectedly hurt when they go on an annual vacation without him. Swicord never quite condemns Howard for his behavior any more than his behavior speaks for itself. Once again, this feels like a technique that plays better on the page, in a confessional story that sort of reads as a one-on-one, rather than a movie that by its very nature, occupies a more observational position.
Cranston, unsurprisingly, is very good in the lead role, and practically the only role of note. Although the voice-over, seemingly transcribed intact from Doctorow's piece, is sort of clunky when read aloud, Cranston effectively imbues it with enough emotion, even though in many ways the film feels like it would still work (and perhaps work better) if Swicord had just cut half of it out, letting more moments play off of Cranston's increasingly weathered face. Garner is fine in the role of Diana, but the film necessarily keeps the character at a distance, and, perhaps because of the troubles Howard is considering, a deeper connection is never felt. Late in the film, Howard befriends two of the Downs children living next door, Emily and Herbert (Pippa Bennett-Warner and Isaac Leyva, the latter of the moving tearjerker Any Day Now), and the chemistry and charisma in these scenes is infectious, lifting the last half. Swicord, making her second feature almost ten years after her debut, imbues the film with a subtle stylishness, peppered with comic dream sequences and one particularly effective, stylized moment of dramatic catharsis.
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