‘The Whale,’ sadly, didn’t make me blubber

The Whale (2022) - PosterSpy

The Whale (2022)

Directed by Darren Aronofsky

Darren Aronofsky’s latest film, based on a 2012 play of the same name, begins with an intense an unsettling scene: a 600-pound recluse, Charlie (Brendan Fraser), begins having a hypertensive crisis while masturbating on his couch…just as a missionary (Ty Simpkins) knocks on his door to tell him about Jesus Christ. You might be forgiven for thinking, based solely on that opening event, that this drama uses shock value to exploit its obese main character. In truth, the film attempts to deploy a thoughtful level of tact…with mixed success.

“The Whale” received a rousing 6-minute ovation when it premiered at the Venice Film Festival a few months ago, but I left my local theater feeling conflicted. On the one hand, the script by the playwright Samuel Hunter tries to treat its incredibly sensitive topics thoughtfully. But on the other hand, some scenes treat Charlie like a literal monster. Dramatic music accompanies his binge-eating like it’s an act of aggression. Is the sense that the movie is fatphobic rooted solely in Charlie’s negative perception of himself? I’d like to give the movie the benefit of the doubt and say yes, but I’m not sure I can. To his credit, Brendan Fraser puts in the work. He spent three hours each day suiting up in painfully realistic prosthetics that weighed 300 pounds, trained with choreographers to move his body in a realistic way, and spent time with obesity advocates to learn how to honestly give life to the feelings of his character. But I also had the gut feeling that no amount of realism could persuade me to be okay with Brendan Fraser playing a morbidly obese man. Aronofsky said he wanted to find an obese actor to play the part, but research brought up few options that he thought could show the emotional depth needed. Everyone involved here feels like they’re stacking a house of cards. “The Whale” is, at times, a really powerful drama…but it’s always right on the verge of falling apart. One wrong move, and the whole thing could crumble. I wouldn’t be surprised if, for the first time in 40 years (by my count), an actor will be nominated for an Oscar and a Razzie for the same role. That’s how much Fraser’s performance teeters on the border of good and bad. If my review doesn’t seem to be able to make up its mind, it’s for exactly this reason. The movie is either pretty good or pretty bad, depending on how you individually perceive a few key things.

The movie’s success or failure doesn’t ride squarely on Fraser’s prosthetic shoulders. There’s also the writing, which, ironically (Charlie teaches college writing courses online), isn’t great. Some scenes seem truncated, like the editor cut too much off either end. It doesn’t help that the movie stays around Charlie’s dimly lit Idaho apartment. It makes sense, since his world revolves around people coming to him, but it doesn’t make the movie any more visually exciting.

The Whale' Trailer: Brendan Fraser Leads New Darren Aronofsky Movie |  IndieWire

Regardless of my feelings about the quality of the movie, one fact is undeniable: it is sad. Unrelentingly sad. “Sadcore” is a subgenre of alternative music, but it should also be a recognized movie genre. At times, “The Whale” is just pitiful. I felt sad for it, instead of being sad with it. Charlie’s story of love and loss, his desire to be a good parent (he tries to reconnect with his estranged daughter, played by Sadie Sink), and his eternal optimism (which gets on the nerves of his friend and caretaker, played by Hong Chau) combine to make him an unrealistically likeable character. When he commits to eating himself to death, you want to run to the front of the theater, break through the screen, slap him, and shout “Snap out of it!” It makes the movie harder to enjoy—which makes you focus even harder on the aspects of the production that are flawed. Enjoyable movies can have flaws forgiven. Depressing movies, less so.

I have loved Darren Aronofsky ever since I rented a VHS copy of “Pi” in high school. “The Whale” might be his worst feature-length directing effort to date, though I will admit I prefer it to “The Fountain.” In likelihood, “The Whale” was just destined to be a difficult work to adapt and might have been doomed to fail no matter what Aronofsky, Fraser, or anyone else had tried to do with it.


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