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BRYAN CRANSTON TESTS HIMSELF IN ‘WAKEFIELD’

Bryan Cranston’s career has gone into overdrive since he caught fire on Breaking Bad. Having recently brought screenwriter Dalton Trumbo and President Lyndon Johnson to life on film, he’s now tackling a fictional character unlike any he’s played before. Wakefield is an admittedly odd but consistently intriguing film.

Cranston plays a successful insurance man who commutes every night to the suburbs of New York City through Grand Central Station. One evening he forgets his keys, but instead of trying to get into his house he seeks refuge in his garage. As he looks at his wife and daughters through a second-story window he begins an interior dialogue that reveals long-suppressed resentment, jealousy, and pent-up anger at his beautiful spouse (well played by Jennifer Garner). As a result he decides to stay in the garage, unseen–overnight at first and then full-time, occasionally sneaking into the house when it’s empty to nab toiletries and such. His beard grows and as he continues his stream-of-consciousness monologue he starts to become obsessive, even crazy.

At first, when he hurls verbal potshots at his spouse it’s darkly amusing–but after a while our view of him changes. He’s mean-spirited and we’re not entirely sure why. After a while he realizes that he’s painted himself into a corner by abandoning his family and his job. How can he return to his former life without a rational explanation?

Wakefield is based on a piece of short fiction by E.L. Doctorow that first appeared in The New Yorker; it in turn was inspired by a Nathaniel Hawthorne story. Swicord has put her own spin on the material and given Cranston a unique showcase for his acting skill. He’s not always sympathetic but he makes this enigmatic character believable and that’s just as important. What’s more, he does this entirely through voice-over narration and pantomime. It’s essentially a silent performance, and so is Garner’s. (They have just a few flashback scenes together.)

I found the result to be fascinating and provocative. It is also a bit frustrating as it doesn’t answer some of our most basic questions. Audiences who like everything spelled out for them will run screaming from the theater.

Great production design by Jeannine Oppewall and camerawork by Andrei Bowden Schwartz helps screenwriter and director Swicord pull off what is essentially a magic trick. (Cranston was never really looking at Garner when he shot his scenes.) But the real magic here is in the audacious concept and its deft execution.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at leonardmaltin.com. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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