The Whale (2022)

Much has been written about Brendan Fraser’s comeback role and the mountain of prosthetics he was buried under to portray a self-loathing 600-pound man in director Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale. The concern was that the movie would stigmatize overweight people as disgusting and treat fatness like a moral indictment, condemning their lifestyles as slovenly and doomed to misery. I watched the film ready to cringe at a moment’s notice with the hyped portrayal that earned such livid and divisive reactions. I found The Whale to be deeply empathetic but I’m uncertain about whether or not it was fully compassionate, and it’s that artistic distinction that I’m trying to square as I analyze Aronofsky’s melodramatic yet flawed character study.

Charlie (Fraser) is a morbidly obese English teacher who keeps his camera off during his online classes. The closest relationships he has is with his nurse, Liz (Hong Chau), who checks on him regularly with alarm and concern, as she’s also the sister of Charlie’s deceased partner. The movie chronicles one eventful week in Charlie’s life as he tries to make the most of his dwindling time and reconnect with his estranged teenage daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink).

For me, Charlie is less a clinical case of what being morbidly obese can do to a person and he’s more a case study of self-destruction. In 1995’s Leaving Las Vegas, Nicholas Cage won an Oscar playing a man determined to drink himself to death over the course of one eventful weekend in Vegas, and I saw more parallels with his character and Charlie, a man who turned to eating as his source of grief that then became his vehicle for self-destruction. The movie is not casting judgment that all fat people, even those approaching the size of Charlie, are destined for eternal loneliness or crying out for help. However, this specific man is using his increasing weight as a form of suicide. This facet makes Charlie interesting but also increasingly confounding as well. He seems genuinely remorseful about the time he’s missed from his now-teen daughter’s life. He’s saved up his life’s money and plans to give it to her, but I kept wondering why, exactly, he had to die for this? He won’t take care of himself because any medical cost could take away from the handsome sum he plans to leave, in full, to Ellie. He apologizes for being absent but seems unable to see an alternative where he can be present. After so many years apart, maybe she would actually prefer having her dad back in her life? Charlie stubbornly holds to an all-or-nothing ideal, like some kind of fumbling romantic gesture, but he doesn’t have to die for his daughter to live her best life. She doesn’t even get a say. It’s his inability to see through this false choice he’s determined is the best outcome that makes the character frustrating. He only views his death, and I’m sure the insurance to go with it, as his biggest reward that he can offer his estranged daughter, and that makes it even more frustrating at the very end, where he’s trying to prove something to her but is also likely traumatizing her for life. That love he proclaims so readily for his daughter seems questionable when he prefers a misguidedly noble demise to getting to know her and allowing her to choose for herself. The character seems so frustratingly myopic about his own life and its value only being its end.

Complicating this matter is the reality that Ellie is, quite clearly, a horrible person. She’s angry at the world and trained her ire on her absentee father, who she believes left her and her mom to pursue an illicit affair with one of his male students (the reality is a bit more complicated). She is well and truly awful. Ellie insults her father repeatedly. She yells that she wants him to die and that she would be better off. She agrees to spend time with him for a hefty price. She even takes pictures of him and posts them online for social media derision. She’s detestable, and yet the screenplay by Samuel D. Hunter (Baskets), adapted from his play, wants me to yearn for a hopeful father/daughter reconciliation. There isn’t a hidden pool of depth with this character, a brilliance that we know just needs to be nurtured and that Ellie can tap back into. She’s just the unrepentant worst. I think The Whale errs by placing so much of its dramatic foundation on this pairing. It made me question why this man is literally killing himself for this bratty teen. The late reveal for Charlie’s essay that he often quotes like a religious mantra is obvious and still doesn’t open up Ellie as a character. There’s a brief tear-stricken moment at the end that I guess is meant to represent Ellie with her guard down, but I didn’t buy it, and I found her to be a thinly written archetype that is unwinnable. She’s more of a plot device to motivate a redemption arc. Maybe the point is she’s undeserving of her father’s graceful overtures but I guess that’s parenting, folks.

Charlie says he’s always been a bigger guy but his weight got away from him after the loss of his partner, and it’s this unfathomable grief that caused Charlie to go on feeding binges. He sought comfort in the immediate appeal of food, and plenty of people can relate to stress eating or eating their feelings when times are turbulent. I don’t think the movie is setting Charlie up as a cautionary tale to avoid. Charlie’s grief is tied to religious intolerance and its own trauma. He opened himself to another person and then had his new sliver of happiness dashed away directly related to a religious intolerant mindset that his partner was unable to break free from. He’s a victim who saw no way out including a heavenly reward supposedly denied to him. It’s not this dead man’s fault that he was raised in a diseased environment that viewed his own identity as an illness, and it’s not worth blaming this man for being unable to break free from this mentality. It’s the intolerance that has contributed to Charlie’s weight gain and his fatalistic sense of self. Heartbroken, Charlie has retreated from the world, and it’s the guise of spiritual salvation that proves alluring to the determined young missionary, Thomas (Ty Simpkins, Jurassic World). He sees the flesh as the prison for the soul, and he tries to sell Charlie on a salvation that asserts itself as liberation from his body, which the young man views with horror. Charlie doesn’t want the spiritual guidance, especially from the same community that poisoned the mind of his late partner. Like the Ellie character, I don’t think we gain much with this storyline and the amount of time that the screenplay gives Thomas. I guess we’re meant to see him as another wayward soul trying to live authentically, but he’s another underwritten archetype given misplaced emphasis.

The best reason to sit through The Whale are the performances from Fraser and Chau. We’ve never seen Fraser in a movie quite like this, a man best known for broad slapstick comedies (George of the Jungle, Furry Vengeance) or dashing action-adventure movies (The Mummy films), and he’s great. His performance is less mannered than you would assume for an actor undergoing such a physical transformation. In fact, his vocal range makes Charlie often sound anesthetized, like he’s already given up moving out of a comfortable yet limited range of emotional output. It’s kind of heartbreaking but he’s also got a gentle heart that chooses to see the best in people, even when they might not be there. Fraser is compelling in every moment and disappears into the role of Charlie. His best scene partner is Chau (The Menu), and the movie is at its best when they’re sharing the screen. Liz is the closest friend Charlie has, and they have a shared special kind of pain relating to the loss of Liz’s brother. She’s also enabling his self-destructive impulses and is devastated that Charlie is accepting a doomed fate rather than letting her take him to a costly hospital. Chau is heartbreaking as you feel her fear and guilt, afraid of losing another person so dear to her but also severing another connection to her brother.

The Whale is an experience that makes me wonder about its best artistic intentions. Even the title of the movie feels like a glancing blow; what other analogy are you supposed to make other than Charlie as our very own Moby Dick? The critical essay he keeps reciting takes a sympathetic view of the marine animal and posits the fruitless efforts of those who wish to cruelly hunt it down and how this will not provide personal fulfillment (it shouldn’t be too hard to figure out who represents who in this dramatic dynamic). It’s also the least distinguishable Aronofsky film of his provocative career, confined to a single location and devoid of the director’s usual vision and verve. It feels like a challenge in restraint for Aronofsky, almost like he’s approaching theater and just wanting to get transfixed by the dramatic surges of the actor’s interactions. I found the central character to be interesting but confounding, not that human beings are ever so clearly understandable in every facet of their being. I don’t think the supporting characters really added much, with the exception of Hong Chau, and I wish the daughter plot had been scrapped. But if you’re sitting down to watch The Whale, you’re doing so to experience Fraser’s career-best performance where he reveals layers to his acting that you never knew were possible. He can still lean into his innate generous spirit and charm to get you to root for Charlie to find some peace. For Fraser alone, The Whale is worth watching and might open some hearts.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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About natezoebl

One man. Many movies. I am a cinephile (which spell-check suggests should really be "epinephine"). I was told that a passion for movies was in his blood since I was conceived at a movie convention. While scientifically questionable, I do remember a childhood where I would wake up Saturday mornings, bounce on my parents' bed, and watch Siskel and Ebert's syndicated TV show. That doesn't seem normal. At age 17, I began writing movie reviews and have been unable to stop ever since. I was the co-founder and chief editor at PictureShowPundits.com (2007-2014) and now write freelance. I have over 1400 written film reviews to my name and counting. I am also a proud member of the Central Ohio Film Critics Association (COFCA) since 2012. In my (dwindling) free time, I like to write uncontrollably. I wrote a theatrical genre mash-up adaptation titled "Our Town... Attacked by Zombies" that was staged at my alma mater, Capital University in the fall of 2010 with minimal causalities and zero lawsuits. I have also written or co-written sixteen screenplays and pilots, with one of those scripts reviewed on industry blog Script Shadow. Thanks to the positive exposure, I am now also dipping my toes into the very industry I've been obsessed over since I was yea-high to whatever people are yea-high to in comparisons.

Posted on January 27, 2023, in 2022 Movies and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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