Austin Film Festival Review: Despite Brendan Fraser’s affecting performance, ‘The Whale’ is lost at sea

Brendan Fraser plays an obese man in A24's 'The Whale.'
Image via A24
Review of: The Whale

Reviewed by:
Rating:
2.5
On November 8, 2022
Last modified:November 11, 2022

Summary:

Though Brendan Fraser's performance is phenomenal, the script itself was poorly adapted for the screen, giving what could be a great movie a heavy-handedness that undercuts the excellent performances.

Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale centers around a standout performance from Brendan Fraser, and the actor demonstrates his comeback is well-deserved. But while the director is at home with the film’s apocalyptic themes, the family drama feels forced, neglecting to ground its characters convincingly within the walls of the apartment where the action takes place.

Charlie (Fraser) teaches online writing courses from his home, which he no longer leaves, with his camera off. He is obese, and it’s unclear if it’s a cause or effect of his hermit lifestyle. He has a near-death experience while watching porn with his blood pressure spiking but is saved by a young missionary who happens to knock on his door at the right or wrong time. Charlie wants nothing to do with god in his time of need, but instead, frantically demands the confused young man to read an essay on Moby Dick out loud.

It’s not particularly evident what Moby Dick has to do with Charlie’s life beyond that he is big and whales are big (get it?). If there’s a counterpart in classical literature, it’s certainly A Christmas Carol, as over the course of The Whale, we learn that Charlie isn’t a great guy and even his attempts at making amends screw other people over in the process. But for Charlie and his rotating visitors, redemption is never out of the question.

Charlie’s friend, a charmingly brusque nurse named Liz played by Hong Chau, shows up in a panic and after checking his vitals, lets him know his days are numbered if he doesn’t go to the hospital. Charlie, who has no health insurance, refuses, and Liz is equal parts gutted and exasperated. As the one person truly invested in his life, she serves as an audience surrogate.

After their first encounter, the missionary becomes something of a regular house guest, continuing to urge Charlie to save his soul. He’s at odds with Liz, who doesn’t trust his sunny demeanor or his church and tries to keep him away, hoping her friend can be saved in this life.

Charlie, meanwhile, is occupied trying to mend his relationship with his estranged daughter Ellie, played by Stranger Things‘ Sadie Sink, who he reaches out to, knowing it’s his last chance. The surly teen is a great writer but a bad student, and Charlie hopes some tutoring and bribery will make up for missing her childhood. Later, Ellie’s mom (Samantha Morton), tries to make sense of their brief marriage.

There has been some controversy over the decision to cast Fraser and put the actor in a fat suit. Aronofsky’s reasoning was that he tried to cast a bigger actor, but couldn’t find one good enough, which isn’t good enough. While Fraser’s performance is great, the film itself doesn’t have anything profound to say about obesity and that, combined with the casting choice, suggests a lack of curiosity. There are many ways to tell a story about a shut-in with health issues, but this is the choice they made, and the movie doesn’t provide insight to justify such an increasingly frowned-upon practice of putting actors in fat suits. Charlie’s relationship with his body feels so oversimplified. When his body is directly addressed, it is treated as something he is doing to people, which could have been interesting to actually explore, but this movie doesn’t. Although a director can’t exactly control viewers’ reactions, it’s telling that during my screening, audiences went for cheap laughs like Charlie opening a drawer full of candy.

The movie has drawn praise, which hopefully will encourage studios that a movie centering on an obese person’s experience from their perspective is worth making. It’s a good thing that prosthetics allow actors to transform, but murky when that is the only way for people whose bodies don’t fit Hollywood’s mold to be depicted on screen. It’s certainly nothing new for these stories to be told by more traditional movie stars before they’re ever allowed to be in the hands of people with lived experience. The movie has no obligation to right the sins of Hollywood’s past, but it’s certainly careless if empathy was the point.

The Whale is based on a play by Samuel D. Hunter, who also wrote the screenplay, and more care could have been taken adapting it from the stage. Charlie only goes out to his porch to collect deliveries and apartment, people shuffle in and out under the assumption they understand each other’s motivations when it’s clearly not the case. It’s a credit to Aronofsky that he didn’t expand the scope of the production beyond the single location in an effort to make it more cinematic, and he takes advantage of the medium to capture Fraser’s facial expressions, which do more to tell Charlie’s story than the dialogue.

The controversies of the movie should not overshadow that it’s just bad storytelling. As the motley crew comes and goes, they each reveal their great psychic wound in a dramatic monologue, boiling things down to some version of hurt people hurt people each time. The exposition errs on the side of heavy-handedness, and here, it’s evident that not enough care was taken adapting the work for the screen, where there’s more room to be subtle when showing not telling. For Aronofsky, it’s grounded work, but if the point was to make an understated film, the divisive director did not rise to the occasion.

Fraser’s performance has already set the actor up for awards show consideration, and he’s deserving of the recognition, as is Chau. But The Whale is a frustrating watch as Aronofsky doesn’t seem to trust the actors or the audience, squashing the potential to tell an intriguing story.

The Whale is in select theaters Dec. 9 (NY/LA) and opens nationwide Dec. 21

The Whale
Middling

Though Brendan Fraser's performance is phenomenal, the script itself was poorly adapted for the screen, giving what could be a great movie a heavy-handedness that undercuts the excellent performances.