EDITORS’ RATING: 6/10
If you could suppress the feeling of pure self-loathing, it would probably look something like “The Whale”. Heralded as Brendan Fraser’s epic return to Hollywood (apart from the various other high-profile roles he’s taken on over the past few years), it’s hard not to root for him as he puts everything he has into the role of Charlie stuck, a man whose pain has caused him to reach a weight incompatible with life. But while Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale occasionally touches on the profound, it seems too laser-focused on Charlie’s plight to create a full-fledged narrative.
Charlie weighs 600 pounds, he’s nearing the end of his life and his world has never been smaller. He works as a writing teacher and teaches classes via Zoom, where he always has convenient excuses to turn off his camera. He spends every day in his apartment and uses a walker to move from the couch to the kitchen to the bed. His only company is Liz (Hong Chau), a nurse who drops in every day to bring him food, check his vitals, and provide some much-needed human interaction.
They try to ignore his deteriorating health, but both realize that he has heart failure and that he has very little time left. With this in mind, he sets out to right the great wrong of his life: the fractured relationship between himself and his teenage daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink), who providentially shows up on his doorstep after being suspended from school.
Screened at the Toronto International Film Festival throughout the film, we are struck by its limitations. They overwhelm him as he struggles not only to get up without help, but to make the kind of grand gestures he’s so desperate to make to give meaning to his life. He can barely walk, so his efforts are limited. He wants to see his daughter again. He can’t fix their relationship – it’s too big – but he can plant a seed to encourage her to see herself the way he sees her.
Brendan Fraser’s masterpiece
“The Whale” is one of those movies that really wouldn’t work without the lead role. As Charlie, Brendan Fraser is so open and vulnerable and honest, bringing with him the seriousness and unrelentingly kind demeanor that has defined his entire career. The film critiques some of his worst excesses — there’s a binge-eating sequence that shows just how much he’s given up on life — but it’s also empathetic in a way that very rarely contains the contempt so often associated with pity connected is. We see him as a man who has always tended to be on the heavier side, but in the face of sadness and regret his weight spirals out of control.
Fraser’s character is a man steeped in self-loathing – he constantly apologizes for his very existence. He’s a massive on-screen presence, but he’s constantly belittling himself — hiding from the pizza guy, almost ritualistically saying “I’m sorry” to Liz, and begging his daughter to spend a few more minutes with him before he storms out of the house room. Still, Fraser finds moments to add some much-needed ease to the proceedings. When Liz manages to get him a plus-size wheelchair, he spends a minute zipping around his living room with childish glee.
Less than the sum of its parts
As great as Brendan Fraser is in this role and as much as he puts into it, something about The Whale just doesn’t quite work. There is nothing wrong with the performances themselves – far from it. Hong Chau in particular is transcendent, full of love and empathy and anger. When Fraser is in Oscar talks, Chau, as his best friend and the only person who understands his pain, deserves to be by his side.
Her younger co-stars fare less well. It’s hard to blame Sadie Sink, who plays a role in which she has nothing to do but rage, and Ty Simpkins as a young missionary is quite adequate as a true believer disillusioned with the church. But it feels like something isn’t quite formed with either of them in terms of their characterization or story arcs. The Whale doesn’t fully address Ellie’s trauma or Thomas’ complicated relationship with fundamentalism. It chooses to give Charlie its full attention, which is fine, but parts of Act 3 feel unsatisfying from a narrative perspective. Ellie, in particular, lacks nuance – she lashes out at anyone who gets close to her, but without the gray tones that make her character anything but exhausting.
What is perhaps even worse is Aronofsky’s tendency to create images that are frustratingly overdone. In a dramatic moment, his impulse is to go over the top rather than hold back, taking something that could be genuinely moving and giving it a distracting sense of clownish artificiality. The film seems obsessed with the fat suit that aids Fraser’s performance, determined to put it through its paces after incurring the huge expense of creating it. But there’s a lot more to Charlie than his weight, a fact supported by the script but not necessarily by Aronofsky’s directing.
“The Whale” lives and dies on the strength of Brendan Fraser’s leading man, and there are few actors who deserve a career revival as much as he does. It’s just a shame there isn’t more here than its function as a Star Remake vehicle. The Whale tries its best, and components of the film work very well in isolation. But like an English essay produced almost entirely with hot air, it’s not nearly as powerful as it thinks it is.
https://www.looper.com/1013055/the-whale-review-disappointing-drama-brendan-fraser-blameless/ Disappointing Drama, Brendan Fraser Faultless