The buzz for Darren Aronofsky’s “The Whale” has been deafening with most of the excitement swirling around Brendan Fraser’s lead performance. As a long-time appreciator of Fraser, it’s nice to see him back on screen with a meaty attention-getting role. I just wish he was attached to a better movie. As it is, “The Whale” sinks under its heavy theatrics, some frustrating character treatment, and occasions of off-putting insensitivity.
Penned by Samuel D. Hunter who’s adapting his own 2012 play, this stagy chamber piece is a hard movie to grasp. “The Whale” has enough baked-in subject matter to prompt quite a response, and it has a way of making us root for it. But getting past some of its questionable choices and shaky storytelling proved to be a big ask. Even worse, there’s a dull but nagging falseness to the film that no amount of melodrama could fully numb. And while Aronofsky demands our empathy (more so than earning it), his film can be as mean-spirited as it is heartbreaking.
Fraser dons pounds of latex and makeup to play a morbidly obese man with congestive heart failure named Charlie. At 600 pounds, Charlie can barely get around and is home-ridden. He teaches college classes from his couch via Zoom, but hides his appearance from his online students by saying his laptop camera is broken. Even worse, Charlie has sunken into a deep depression following the death of his partner, a former student he ran off with, deserting his wife and eight-year-old daughter. The combination of grief and guilt has driven Charlie to eat himself to death.
The entire film takes place in Charlie’s dark stuffy house which contributes to its staginess. But Fraser holds our attention through a performance that features more than just a physical transformation. He’s also the movie’s emotional core. But for someone who is in nearly every scene, it’s surprising how little we learn about Charlie from Charlie. Instead, Aronofsky leans on four supporting characters who stop by the house from time to time. It shortchanges Fraser by forcing him to sit back, watch, and react to the speechifying of others.
Easily the most interesting of the supporting characters is Liz (Hong Chau), Charlie’s lone friend and personal nurse. She’s irritable nearly to the point of being annoying early in the film. But we get a better grasp of her once the reasons for her frustrations surface. It’s a little different for Ellie (Sadie Sink), Charlie’s estranged daughter who’s still bitter because he abandoned her and her mother Mary (Samantha Moon). Sink is a terrific young actress, but Aronofsky keeps her stuck in one gear – perpetually angry and cruel to the point of being a bit robotic. It isn’t until her final scene that she’s actually given a chance to lower the temperature and show another side of her character.
The most poorly conceived character of the bunch is Thomas (Ty Simpkins), a door-to-door missionary who makes Charlie his own personal redemption project. Thomas belongs to some vague non-denominational church called New Life which is custom-made to be Aronofsky’s punching bag. It’s too easy of a target. But where Thomas’ story really goes off the rails is in the second half when Aronofsky introduces all sorts of corny, overwrought family drama. Thomas quickly goes from fairly interesting to annoying.
“The Whale” is weighed down by a few other frustrations. Take how the supporting characters unload their stories through glaringly staged monologues or confessions (their “big moments”). Or how the movie beats us to a pulp with its heavy-handed messaging rather than revealing it organically. You won’t find an ounce of subtlety anywhere.
But worst of all is how Fraser’s performance is sometimes lost under the heavy latex and makeup. Not due to anything he’s doing, but because Aronofsky’s gawking at the actor’s transformation sometimes veers too close to heartless voyeurism. There are times when the film seems to look at Charlie with disgust, which is at odds with its bigger message of finding a person’s beauty and goodness within. And no amount of hokey sentiment and emotional manipulation can fully earn our empathy, especially during the moments when the movie doesn’t seem to have any. “The Whale” is now showing in select theaters.