With his just-announced and not unexpected Golden Globes nomination and more accolades sure to come, Brendan Fraser has made a remarkable comeback in Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale. The lovable actor parlayed his role as a hip caveman in Encino Man into a handful of interesting characters in the 90’s (who else could do that?) only to nearly disappear from the spotlight for the past several years. The actor’s unmistakable compassion is still on display in his latest, even as he works within the confines of a girthsome prosthetic suit and maybe more cumbersome– a story that occasionally chokes on the suds of daytime soap melodrama.
Heartbreaking and bleak, Fraser plays Charlie, a 600-pound recluse who’s suffering from congestive heart failure. Confined to his drab apartment, Charlie spends his days teaching online English courses, gorging on pizzas, masturbating to gay porn and struggling to make it to the bathroom on his walker. The only evidence he actually exists is through a small black box on his zoom classes (he tells his students that his computer’s camera is dead).
A worthy addition to Aronofsky’s canon of lost souls, Charlie is intent on accomplishing one more thing on earth before he slips into the ether. Much like Randy “The Ram” Robinson’s last desperate clutch for glory in The Wrestler or Nina Sayers’ grotesque perfectionism in Black Swan, Charlie knows it’s too late for a second chapter, but still pushes past the imprisonment of his body to attain spiritual redemption.
Based on the play by Samuel D. Hunter, who also penned the screenplay, the movie’s apartment setting isn’t the most cinematic of set pieces. Actually, it’ll probably make you squirm. We quickly learn that Charlie’s insatiable and suicidal appetite is a result of his lover Alan’s suicide. He simply can’t cope. Alan’s sister, a prickly nurse named Liz (a fantastic Hong Chau) stops by every day to check his blood pressure, which is growing increasingly high. She warns him that unless he gets to a hospital, he won’t make it past the week. Since the movie starts with a placard telling us it’s Monday and counts down from there, Liz’s warning isn’t an empty threat but a prophecy. Of course, Charlie ignores her advice and continues killing himself by ingesting buckets of fried chicken and candy bars. These scenes are about as unpleasant to watch as an extreme French horror flick from the early aughts. Strangely, Aronofsky stages these sequences with a voyeuristic, doom-laden vibe that’s completely out of touch with the empathy we’re supposed to be feeling for this poor man.
Charlie reaches out to his estranged teenage daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink) in a last attempt to connect. Sink brings a cryptically funny edge to her performance. Instead of pitying her father for his failing health, she holds him responsible for abandoning his family for his gay lover and making a mess out of their lives. In a desperate attempt to keep her around, Charlie offers her money and even rewrites her school essays. In those moments when she stomps into his apartment like a tornado and slings insults at him, the movie crackles with life. Sink is fantastic and frankly saves the movie from drowning in a puddle of solemnity.
For a recluse, Charlie gets a lot of visitors. You almost expect him to throw one of his pizza crusts at them and squeal, “Get out!” If he were playing a relatable human being instead of a martyr, he would do just that. Instead, the movie opts for dire earnestness instead of irony, which turns it into an insufferable weep-fest. Look no further than the misconceived character of Thomas (Ty Simpkins), a callow missionary from the local church who wants to save Charlie from eternal damnation. Although Simpkins is quite effective as Thomas, his role is a transparent and preposterous means to inject religious themes into a movie that’s already brimming with allegory. The movie references Moby Dick every ten minutes. Now, we need to talk about The Bible? Jeesh.
The movie has its heart in the right place, but it attempts to shroud everyone in their own existentialist dilemma, which simply feels empty. Who cares if a young missionary smokes pot or Ellie takes photos of everyone and posts them on Facebook, or her mother (Samantha Morton) desperately searches for a bottle of vodka in Charlie’s cupboards? The improprieties don’t make these people more interesting, just confused. Another problem is the narrative’s stilted tone. Since it’s based on a play, the screenplay relies on too many protracted conversations and mushy theatrics. Aronofsky tries his best to turn this material into something rich and cinematic, but you can feel the struggle.
The Whale shouldn’t be taken literally. It’s not a think piece about obesity in America, but rather, a look at the relationship between physical decay and spiritual enlightenment. It’s a subject Aronofsky’s been obsessed with since his breakout film, Requiem for a Dream. Embedding spiritual concepts into his past works with a narrative fluidity and visionary flair, The Whale feels strained and claustrophobic by comparison. The material is simply too stagey and small for a director with such large ideas.
Ultimately, there are two reasons to see this middling yarn: its exploration of spiritual hyperbole and the performances, particularly Brendan Fraser’s much-praised channeling of pain and hopelessness. Although he’s draped in heavy layers of latex, the actor’s eyes convey subtext the screenplay can’t excavate. Charlie’s life could’ve come off overwrought and maudlin, but Fraser brings a unique empathy to the character, who clearly doesn’t see a way out of his situation beyond no longer taking up so much space.
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