The film “Wakefield,” adapted from an E.L. Doctorow short story originally published in the New Yorker about a disgruntled family man’s retreat into hermit-like introspection, has been lovingly traced over by writer-director Robin Swicord (“The Jane Austen Book Club”) into a neat movie package of voyeuristic drama and actorly transformation. If it struggles to make sense emotionally (or logistically), it benefits from the confident pace of a literate, mainstream entertainment, and the tactical showmanship of star Bryan Cranston, who’s made something of a specialty out of the average guy going through a metamorphosis.
We all occasionally need a break from our existence, and society is OK with that. It’s why weekends and tourism were invented. But when Howard Wakefield (Cranston) — Manhattan lawyer and suburban husband/father, daily commuter and steadfast grumbler — sees his opportunity, he allows it to morph into a full-fledged disappearance from life, his wife (Jennifer Garner) and his teenage girls. With one notable asterisk: He doesn’t need to go very far to do it, simply decamping to the garage attic, where a window allows him a front-row view on the fallout from his impromptu vanishing.
After a late night walk home from a train stranded due to a power outage — musing to us in narration about “collapsing civilization” — Howard follows a raccoon into his attic. Distracted by the discovery that he can spy on his worried wife, Diana, and triggered by memories of arguments with her, he postpones making his entrance until it’s too late in his mind for it to be reasonably excused. Drawn to his self-imposed exile, he imagines himself a rebel from domesticity, scavenging for food, growing a hobo beard and scrutinizing his wife’s actions from across the driveway.
As his family learns to move on, Howard looks backward for clues and — surprise — learns that his cynicism about his marriage, and sense of…