By Christian DiMartino
By now you’ve probably heard about the acclaim that Brendan Fraser has been receiving for Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale. The film premiered at the Venice Film Festival, where he received quite the ovation, shooting him to the front of the Best Actor Oscar race. I like him a lot, and always have, and seeing as this is nothing short of a major victory, who wouldn’t be happy for him. Perhaps everything you’ve heard about this movie is true: Fraser is great, the movie isn’t. I agree with that, but I like the movie more than most will.
Fraser’s story is one we probably know by now. He became a box office sensation in the mid-90’s with movies like George of the Jungle (absolute banger) and The Mummy (another banger), somewhat lost his footing in the 2000’s, regained it, and vanished. The reasons being that he sustained a number of injuries from doing his own stunts, he was sexually assaulted at one point, pretty sure he went through a divorce, etc. But now the comeback is upon us. What’s interesting is that we all have a nostalgic affection for him, and he always had charm and charisma. But it wasn’t often that he got to show off his dramatic side. He’s briefly in Crash, and strong in supporting turns in Gods and Monsters and The Quiet American. But otherwise, he looked at the big pictures.
Aronofsky saw something in him though, and it was a good call. Fraser is lovely in The Whale, a movie that some have found effective, and others have found abhorrent. I found it effective, and didn’t find it abhorrent. There’s visible flaws in it, which I’ll get to eventually. But the center of the movie is a performance that is truly soulful. Fraser is playing a man very much at the end of his rope, without much of a will to live. Yet he taps into a warm, tender side of Charlie that shows that there may still be life in him. All while Fraser is under some pretty remarkable prosthetics that people have been crying about for some reason.
The reason being, I guess, because Charlie is a 600 pound man. I craved footage of this movie for ages because I had to see how Daddy Darren (as I call him) and Fraser pulled it off. The first time Charlie gets off the couch, I was in awe. One of the feats of The Whale is the way in which it effectively taps into Charlie’s internal and external pain and anguish. His walks from the couch to the kitchen, within his rather small apartment, feel as laborious as they look; when Charlie stuffs his face with pizza/Stromboli’s/etc., you sense that it’s all he really wants; when he seems to have medical emergencies, we feel the urgency. I should say is that a Daddy Darren staple is that his movies usually feel like an assault of the senses, which is partially why I love them, but The Whale finds him in a more restrained, respectful manner. He respects Charlie, as we all grow to.
When we first meet him, he’s teaching a virtual college writing course, but he noticeably has his camera turned off. He claims it’s for technical reasons, but we know better. The Whale is set over the course of five days, pretty much entirely in his apartment. Which is one of the main gripes, because this is based on a stage play by Samuel D. Hunter that often feels like one. There’s a difference between cinematic and theatrical, and often, The Whale feels like a filmed play. I’ll get more to that later, but Charlie deliberately leaves his camera off so then his students won’t see him for what he currently is. Which is 600 pounds.
How does someone reach this stage? Well, as revealed through conversations, Charlie was once married to Mary (Samantha Morton) and he had a child named Ellie, but he fell in love with a student named Alan. Alan committed suicide, and this led to Charlie’s descent. Alan’s sister, Liz (Hong Chau, perhaps just as worthy for Academy Award recognition) is currently Charlie’s primary caretaker, and essentially his only friend. Mary has sworn Ellie out of his life, and Liz seems to want Charlie to keep living more than he does. She tells him early that he needs to call 911 ASAP, or else he isn’t going to make it through the week (which is true, because he has congestive heart disease). What’s interesting though is that along with this advice, she curbs his eating habits. One could try to knock the feisty, no-nonsense Liz, but although she knows she’s helping him, she knows she’s not helping him, but she also knows that unhealthy food is one of his rare sources of joy.
Amidst his diagnosis, he reaches out to his daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink), a teenager who… is absolutely horrible. There is really nothing redeeming about this character- she’s filled with vitriol and hatred, oozing with maliciousness in every scene she’s in. Charlie offers to pay her thousands of dollars to not only do her own homework, but for her to stay. She is so despicable that I kept wondering why she actually kept sticking around, and maybe it’s for a reason that I might dive into in a second. But essentially Charlie tries to reconnect with Ellie while also accepting his own self termination.
One thing about The Whale that has stuck with me since leaving it is I find myself digesting the supporting characters a little more after leaving the theatre. Some of these characters didn’t work for me during the movie, but after they prove to be pretty interesting, even if I might still have a gripe or two. Liz finds herself in a conundrum because she can try to help someone that she cares about, but can’t help someone who can’t help themselves. Liz is a character I fully bought into, and Chau, who has been great since Downsizing (the only Alexander Payne movie I didn’t love), works wonders with Fraser.
The people who despise this movie, I can’t reason with you I suppose. Because something like Aronofsky’s mother!, by design, wasn’t meant for everyone. I found this to be an effective story, if maybe because Fraser is sort of the glue holding it all together. The dynamic between Charlie, Ellie, and Mary are pretty compelling. Perhaps not always executed perfectly, but I sense there’s more beneath the surface. Because Charlie abandoned his family for the love of his life, who also abandoned him, leading to his downfall. So he’s left with nothing, really, but to wallow in his misery. Mary and Ellie obviously have a tough time with him, but despite her anger, Mary does care about him to a degree. In fact, you can see a bit of Charlie in Mary, and all of Mary in Ellie. This may be a richer text than people have led on.
About 15 years ago, Daddy Darren released The Wrestler, which served as the temporary career rebirth of Mickey Rourke in a performance that not only earned him an Oscar nomination, but maybe should’ve nabbed him the gold. The Wrestler was also a movie about a man at the end of his rope, longing to reconnect with his daughter. The Wrestler was also a masterpiece; perhaps a movie that time has forgotten, but one that truly devastates me each time I see it. It is a masterpiece, and among his best films, if not objectively his best. The Whale is not a masterpiece.
The warmth and range of Fraser’s performance is. Alas, the movie does suffer from what people have griped about all along, but in different ways. Sure, the movie is set solely in the apartment, which does feel more theatrical than cinematic. But, considering Charlie’s situation, could we really picture him exiting this apartment? Maybe Hunter (who adapted the screenplay) and Aronofsky could’ve transcended the material a little more, but I understood it in terms of keeping us in Charlie’s world. What works a little less for me is, again, the theatricality, particularly with two (debatably three) characters.
Ty Simpkins, a child star from James Wan’s Insidious, plays a missionary who keeps appearing at Charlie’s door trying to spread the word. And when I say he keeps appearing, I mean it. Some of Charlie’s guests shoo him off, just to let him in the apartment. This was where my suspension of disbelief began. At first I was onboard, but the more he keeps appearing the less the movie sold me. Because clearly these people don’t want him around, why do they keep allowing him entry? It’s one of those things that might’ve worked well on stage, but didn’t work on film for me.
Also not working fully is the Sink character. Like Simpkins, I think she’s giving a good performance. It’s just that Ellie is such a monster, so despicable, that maybe there could’ve been a touch or two to make her a little more human. We get why she’s upset, but also there’s a little bit of a one-noteness to the character that isn’t quite as easy to buy into. You could say the same about Morton, who is doing fine work but also sort of work that feels like it belongs, well, on stage.
I liked The Whale, but I can’t say it’s one of Daddy Darren’s best. I found it effective at times, and during those times, I sometimes found myself fighting with it. Black Swan, Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler, and mother! are all my idea of a f**ked up great time, and this movie will take a minute for me to fully embrace. I found myself fighting with it from time to time- whether it be the aforementioned characters, or a scene or two that felt askew. By the time the film reaches its conclusion though, Aronofsky and Fraser sealed the deal for this particularly softy. If Fraser nabs the Oscar, s**t, I can’t be too mad at it.
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