Every day Howard Wakefield leaves his Manhattan law office, gets on the train and goes back to the suburbs, his wife, his daughters and his lovely, heavily mortgaged home.
Until one day he doesn't.
He doesn't go far afield, though - just to the second floor of his home's carriage house. Where he hides out for months - even as his wife panics, the police search and his partners eventually go on without him.
That's the odd beginning of "Wakefield," and it gets even odder, as Howard the hermit sticks to his strange plan, using a bucket for a toilet and sneaking out at night to scavenge food from the garbage.
But what exactly, is his point?
Or - even better - what's the movie's?
The film is carried by Bryan Cranston, who's in every scene and narrates throughout with droll insight. He's one of our most gifted actors, and while this film's dependence on him is huge, it also allows him to work small - conveying awe or lust or disgust with a wince.
He's also nicely partnered by Jennifer Garner, who gives his wife, Diana, her own signature, genuine warmth.
But the movie itself is not only cold, it's old. Although it's based on the late E.L. Doctorow's 2008 story (who was himself inspired by a work by Nathaniel Hawthorne), it feels like a dusty relic from the '50s, when John Cheever was writing all those tales of sad businessmen, marinated in regret and imprisoned in a middle seat on the 5:19.
Not that there aren't unfulfilled businessmen (and businesswomen) today, but at least they know how to talk about it - half a century of pop psychology has given them the vocabulary, if nothing else. Clueless Howard, in his inexpressible angst, seems like a throwback, a grey-flannel creature of the Eisenhower era - a refugee from a Paddy Cheyefsky script, a malcontent from a Richard Yates story.
Even more painfully cliched is a subplot in which Howard befriends a couple of mentally handicapped children. Only the truly innocent, you see, can ever understand a complicated man like him. It's a pat and patronizing device, and revives a stereotype that's best left buried.
Yet Robin Swicord - who wrote and directed - can't seem to (or doesn't want to) fix or update any of this. She's a solid writer and occasional director with a literary bent - "Memoirs of a Geisha," "The Jane Austen Book Club," the 1994 "Little Women." She appreciates serious fiction, and clearly wants to honor Doctorow's text.
But a short story is not a screenplay, and -- ironically -- what may seem dreamily imagistic as fiction becomes dully literal onscreen. Turning the pages, you think - how easy it is to fade from people's hearts. Watching the film, you think - ugh, what does he smell like?
And you're also struck - long before Howard is - of how inhumanely cruel and creepy this all is. He's basically stalking his own family, peeping on his own wife. (The film makes absolutely no claim that he's had a breakdown, or is suffering from any sort of mental illness.)
In a way, it almost feels like a horror movie - except the real horror is how selfish Howard is. His daughters have lost their father, his wife may lose the house - and all Howard can think about is what he's lost, what he's trying to find. Even now, it's still all about him. As he explains in voiceover, "I didn't leave my family. I left myself."
It's to Cranston's great credit that he's able to keep us watching this shallow, self-deceiving egotist. It's the film's fatal failing that we're never sure why.
Ratings note: The film contains strong language, sexual situations, brief violence.
'Wakefield' (R) IFC (106 min.) Directed by Robin Swicord. With Bryan Cranston, Jennifer Garner, Beverly D'Angelo. Now playing in New York. TWO STARS