God love Brendan Fraser, who stars in The Whale and almost single-handedly saves it from utter ruin. Fraser has always been an effortlessly likable actor. So it’s no surprise he can make even the most egregious and inhumane screenplays come off like a warm, harmless hug. In a better world where more films can provoke the collective consciousness with bold, daring open letters to the condition that ails us as a species, Fraser should undoubtedly lend his seemingly endless empathy to a worthier project.
The Whale is the latest film from Darren Aronofsky. But in many ways, his presence as director is vastly overshadowed by the other creative forces going into this grim awards-season drama. For one thing, Aronofsky is not a credited screenwriter like he was for his last film, mother!, five years ago and Noah a few years before that. The writing here comes from Samuel D. Hunter, who wrote the original play of the same name in 2012.
Fraser plays Charlie, a reclusive English teacher who conducts all his classes online and keeps the camera off at all times to hide his appearance. He is a 600-pound man, and his higher weight has led to a host of health issues that all but doom him to an early death. Much of these woes are redirected as inconveniences toward the people who care for him, namely his nurse Liz (Hong Chau), who at one point posits that Charlie is doing this to her.
“People are incapable of not caring.”
This misplaced anger is just an inkling of how Hunter’s story absolutely misses every mark when capturing the daily lives of fat people, how they have to exist in a society that perpetually shames and dehumanizes them. They’ll find little value in The Whale, I suspect, a film of contradictions where kind and gentle Charlie consistently gets shouted at and bemoaned by everyone he lets into his apartment (the film’s only real location). It’s an introvert’s worst nightmare, but the horrors don’t stop there.
The surrounding cast is a who’s who of over-expressing actors who bounce through the inert setting like they’re acting for the people at the very back of the theater and only them. This is particularly true for Sadie Sink, who increases the volume of her performance in such cartoonish ways that it almost benefits Fraser in how little he has to try and match the character’s cringe-inducing attempts at edgelordia. Even for a 17-year-old.
On that note, Sink plays Charlie’s estranged daughter Ellie, whom he abandoned with her mother almost a decade ago to be with a man. She’s balanced by a missionary named Thomas — get it, doubting Thomas? — played by Ty Simpkins. Aronofsky is no stranger to putting forth religious angst as a theme to both rail against and find quirk-filled comfort in. It’s one of the few areas where the director almost appears comfortable with the screenplay he’s adapting, isolated and lonely as it is. There’s only so much rain splatter he can douse against the outside windows to revel in at least some kind of quiet symbolism.
The bottom line.
Thematically, much of The Whale is spent evaluating honesty through art. Writing essays and not holding back punches. Hunter clearly wants to write what he wants and finds even clumsy, amateurish tripe valuable as long as it’s honest. In that way, The Whale is its own parody, a rejection of all the lessons society should’ve learned over the last decade about what happens when you give every reactionary forum avatar a megaphone and call it connection. And it’s certainly not a film worthy of Fraser’s compassionate performance and much-deserved comeback.
The Whale opens in theaters starting December 9. Watch the trailer here.
Featured image courtesy of A24.
THE WHALE - 4.5/10