The role of wife and mother is something Jennifer Garner knows well. It’s one she’s played in her last seven consecutive films, an identity that’s boosted her cultural relevance over the past decade, as her on-screen career has taken a back seat to raising a family ... and, err, Ben Affleck.
Films like “Juno” and “Miracles of Heaven” showed Garner making the most out of the “wife” character, delivering her best film performances to date, exploring the joys and challenges of motherhood. Similar roles in more forgettable fare (”The Odd Life of Timothy Green,” ”Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” and “Danny Collins”) have fallen by the wayside. And the less said about “Nine Lives” the better.
Those clamoring for a Garner comeback of a different sort won’t find much to celebrate in “Wakefield,” which opens for a wider release on Friday. Based off the short story by E. L. Doctorow, the film finds Garner playing wife and mother yet again, but the typecasting could be easily forgiven if the material was deserving. Director Robin Swicord, who’s made a career out of bringing women’s stories to the big screen, is at the helm of her first film in years. And yet here these identifiers overwhelm fleeting moments of agency, as Garner’s primary function is to service the evolution of a husband who’s, well, kind of an asshole.
“Wakefield” belongs to Bryan Cranston as Howard, a man who essentially ghosts his wife Diana (Garner) and children by going on a faux “Into the Wild” quest to find himself. Except instead of traveling all the way to the Alaskan hinterlands, Howard sets up shop in the attic overlooking his house, as he watches his family cope with his disappearance and presumed death. Apart from a handful of flashbacks where Garner gels well with a more adult, edgier tone, her scenes are mostly silent, taking place behind the attic’s glass window pane and through a pair of binoculars.
There’s a certain boldness in telling this story from the eyes of an unlikable protagonist, especially through the lens of a female director, and no one is better suited than Cranston to humanize an anti-hero. The film stays with Cranston’s character, even in his most arrogant and repulsive moments, as “Wakefield” is a deeply internal piece that strongly evokes its original source material. Exploring everyone’s perverse desire to pull the escape hatch on life is fascinating, but not allowing Garner a moment of respite under Cranston’s unrelenting gaze makes for a frustrating and far less dynamic experience.
In a recent interview with Build Series, Swicord addressed these criticisms, agreeing that the story is the very “definition of the male gaze,” but claiming that the film ultimately subverts this power structure. There is something to be said about Swicord writing and directing a film that unapologetically empathizes with a middle-aged white male in crisis and not his wife. However, if her intention was to provide commentary on the ways men come to view women, she missed a crucial opportunity in the film’s ending to drive her point home.
While Howard lives in self-imposed destitution, dumpster diving for food and communing with the town’s local raccoon population, Diana is left to her own devices. She later strikes up a romance with Dirk (Jason O’Mara), an ex-boyfriend and former work rival of Howard’s. Through flashbacks, it’s revealed that Howard was only initially interested in Diana because of what amounts to a pissing contest between himself and Dirk. It’s disappointing to say the least that Garner’s character so easily volleys back and forth between the two and is none the wiser.
Dirk’s encroachment on Howard’s so-called territory and an almost laughable come-to-Jesus moment during a rainstorm prompt him to return home months after disappearing. Before he walks through the door, however, Howard imagines the various reactions Diana and his family might have. In one scenario, they’re terrified, and in another, they break down crying. But before the audience is allowed to see her genuine reaction ― and a scene where she exists outside of her husband’s viewpoint ― the film cuts to black. The short story ends in a similar fashion, so the adaptation is nothing if not faithful, but the ending feels like a cop-out that unfairly robs the character of any semblance of justice.
Curiously, “Wakefield” was filmed during the nearly one-year period after Garner and then husband Ben Affleck announced their separation. The actor was painted by the media as a philanderer in the midst of a mid-life crisis (see: fake phoenix back tattoo), while Garner held down the fort, shuttling kids back and forth from karate class. That’s why it’s somewhat baffling that given the material’s fascination with a husband’s failings, Garner chose to work on this project before eventually divorcing Affleck this April.
As she raises her three children, the actress is increasingly selective with her film work, especially leading parts that require her to be away from her family for long stretches of time. Maybe Garner has fallen victim to Hollywood’s pernicious stereotyping of women over 40, or maybe she’s had trouble finding roles that work within her constraints. She could be seeking out these roles, as she can relate in one way or another. Or perhaps, she just needs a new agent.
The idea of Garner strictly as a wife and mother in her personal life and in her on-screen roles might be the dominant narrative of her celebrity, but she has already proven that she’s more than her megawatt smile, dimples and Capital One commercials. Five seasons on ABC’s “Alias” shot her toward superstardom, and cemented her status as an actress who could kick ass and emote with the best of them. At least, the Golden Globe Awards thought so. She made audiences fall in love with her in “13 Going On 30.” And playing a deranged woman who develops an attraction to a priest in the little known short film “Serena” confirmed that Garner could, yes, go dark.
Despite making the most out of the little she’s given in “Wakefield,” you can’t help but walk out of the theater asking: What if?
What if Garner made as many films as Affleck in the last decade? What if “Wakefield” took the time to explore what it’s like to be the one left behind? What if Garner finally found a role that allows her to be the movie star we always thought she could be?
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