In the realm of pop sociology, the term "ghosting" has developed several connotations. As an update of expressions like French Exit or Irish Goodbye, it means slipping out of a party without saying your farewells. It has an even newer application in the dating world, where it means breaking up by abruptly dropping communication.
In the indie drama Wakefield, starring Bryan Cranston, Manhattan lawyer Howard Wakefield ghosts on his entire life, impulsively abandoning his family after a hard day at the office. Rather than taking the traditional route, emptying the bank account and driving to the Florida Keys, Howard sneaks into the storage space above the garage and perches behind a dusty window, where he can observe the family's tony suburban compound.
Based on a short story by E.L. Doctorow, the film is set in contemporary times but has a conspicuously old-school East Coast literary vibe that will be familiar to readers of Updike or Cheever. Howard's midlife crisis is standard-issue. He fears that suburban domestication has emasculated him, and he longs to get back the potency of the Great American Male.
The grim irony, of course, is that Howard tries to seize the day by hiding in a pathetic voyeur's nest on the perimeter of his own safety zone. He's intermittently aware of this irony, but he's tangled in so many layers of resentment and insecurity that he can't be honest with himself. Just because his nervous breakdown is a cliché doesn't make it hurt any less.
In fact, it makes it so much worse. Howard really is in pain, and Cranston delivers a fine performance, peeling back the layers of Howard's tortured psyche as his impulsive episode stretches on for months. Hidden behind rags and a hobo beard, Howard wanders his own town, picking through neighbors' trash for food. Meanwhile, through flashbacks, we learn why his marriage is dying.
Director Robin Swicord struggles to sustain momentum in a story that's almost entirely about a guy in a room. I haven't read Doctorow's story, but I suspect the saga of Howard Wakefield works much better on the page than on the screen. This is a tough story to adapt, since so much of the interesting character excavation happens inside Howard's head. And the ambiguous ending doesn't land at all.
The best part is the implicit daydreaming question, What would it be like to ghost on your life? It's fun to think about, but there's really only one way to find out—and Wakefield suggests it's no fun at all.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Every Man for Himself."