Credit: Gilles Mingasson/IFC Films

We’ve all seen men like Howard Wakefield before. He’s the sort of well-off, white, middle-aged commuter who populates the gin-soaked pages of John Cheever novels and suburban movie satires like A Shock to the System. He’s invisible, unfulfilled, and fed up. But the fact that he’s played by Bryan Cranston elevates what could have felt like a familiar midlife-crisis caricature into a fresh, living, breathing character — something that’s about to become harder and harder to find as summer movie season ramps up.

Based on a 2008 E.L. Doctorow story, Wakefield is a sly, scabrous one-man show about a working stiff who returns home one night and wonders what would happen if he decided not to walk through the door and face his dissatisfied wife (Jennifer Garner, doing a lot with a little) and teenage daughters. What if he just… disappeared? “I ask you, what is so sacrosanct about a marriage and a family that you should have to live in it day after day?” he asks both himself and the audience in one of the many darkly funny voice-overs that make us his co-conspirators. Instead, Howard decides to hide out in the attic above the garage, spying on his panic-stricken loved ones from close range.

What starts off as a temporary escape snowballs into something more permanent as days, weeks, then months pass, with Howard digging through the trash at night to survive as his family slowly learns to move on. Writer-director Robin Swicord, an Oscar nominee who co-wrote 2008’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, shows a real high-wire daring with the story’s tricky tone. But like Howard’s scheme, the film can’t quite figure how it’s supposed to end. Unfortunately, the answer is: not very convincingly. Until then, though, Cranston is utterly hypnotic as a certain kind of American male on the verge of a nervous breakdown. B