starring Brendan Fraser, Sadie Sink, Ty Simpkins, Samantha Morton
screenplay by Samuel D. Hunter, based on his play
directed by Darren Aronofsky
by Walter Chaw The Whale is the first Darren Aronofsky film that lands for me the way his work often lands for others. It feels like much ado about very little, and though there are obvious things to recommend it, its central message, however well-taken, seems poorly served by the substance and execution. Most of the blame goes to screenwriter Samuel D. Hunter, author of the same-named play on which the film is based, for writing a trio of women characters meant to represent the mother, whore, and virgin but who mostly represent a uniform wall of shrill, lacerating rage. The Whale feels like the product of inexperience: a song by The Smiths turned into a movie in all its grandiloquent, hyper-literate (to the point of self-parody) self-pity. It's about the last five days in the life of online English comp teacher Charlie (Brendan Fraser), a morbidly obese, largely couch-bound shut-in suffering from congestive heart failure brought on by years of unchecked food addiction incited by the suicide of his partner. If that were all (and certainly that's enough), we'd have ourselves a classic. But it's not all. There's an evangelical missionary named Thomas (Ty Simpkins) who comes to the door to sit with him as he's popping off the first of what appears to be a series of heart attacks; Charlie's estranged daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink), who is quite possibly Satan himself because this film is at some level about how anyone can be redeemed and so provides a demonic straw girl to prove it; pissed-off caregiver Liz (Hong Chau), who--it's weird to say this--has a bit too much backstory; and Charlie's alcoholic ex-wife Mary (Samantha Morton), who wants to listen to Charlie's breathing for some reason. The Whale is at once overwritten and underwritten, which is not uncommon. What sinks the ship, as it were, is that it's never particularly well-written--something it just can't surmount. I think the real movie is in the five days before the last five days, but what the fuck do I know?
The Whale is curiously stagebound in its blocking, while the choice to shoot in Academy ratio replicates the experience of seeing it not so much on stage as on a CRT television. You can say the tight, square framing is intended to underscore how trapped Charlie is (though I'd argue that cocooning him in the production design would've done this better), or to accentuate how large he is by eliminating the periphery, but really what it does is tickle at how quaint and reductive the picture is. Indeed, it's written like a 1980s movie of the week for the Christian channel, heavy on the histrionics and heavy-handed tropes (there's good in everyone!) at the expense of a central performance from Fraser so immediate and human it deserved not to be upstaged by a cloud of harpies and a muddy message about God and The Good News so shoddily thought through that... You know, I was reminded of a Bad Religion lyric that goes, "Hey Brother Christian, with your high and mighty errand/Your actions speak so loud, I can't hear a word you're saying." I don't want to believe The Whale is actually about God as an active force in the universe, meaning the reason Charlie is suffering the way he's suffering--and the reason his boyfriend killed himself--is, as Thomas says, because of homosexuality. I don't want to believe that, but playwright Hunter is so wrapped up in this Passion that he trips over himself. Organized religion is a scourge that caused Charlie's partner to self-extinguish, The Whale says, a thing that deserves shaming and lectures from dour castrator Liz. Yet maybe a Christian God is good, so long as you don't turn your back on Him. If the only happy ending in your film is for the missionary to be accepted back into the loving graces of a family who accepts him for who he is after learning the truth of his imperfections, well, what's clear is that Hunter is in a great deal of pain and, as agony sometimes does, it's made him incoherent.
This would also explain why the women--all of them but especially Ellie--are written as different volumes of the same air-raid siren. Ellie, the abandoned child, is set up as the apparent catalyst for a redemption arc in which Charlie, who left his family for his lover, gets the opportunity to tell Ellie how he's tried to stay a part of her life, only to be thwarted by the aggrieved mother. He's even created a savings account for her at the expense of his health, refusing medical intervention for fear it will drain his coffers. That isn't the point; I get it. Charlie is hellbent on self-destruction, a slow suicide as opposed to his partner's more efficient version, and that's enough, isn't it? This need to contrive proof upon proof of Charlie's holy martyrdom, this desire to manufacture a convoluted strategy for Charlie to coerce Ellie into visiting him, this tortured metaphor dragging the ghost of Herman Melville, of all people, into this adolescent mess...it's unbearable. Charlie is universal, and so inhabits three dimensions. The shrieking furies in his orbit seem personal to Hunter, and thus inhabit only two. Sink isn't helped by the way her character is written, but neither does she appear capable of modulating her performance. She has a single setting, and that setting is "bullhorn." Ellie is instantly exhausting: a caricature of teen girlhood in the same way her mother, Mary (!), is a caricature of a disgruntled middle-aged divorcée. Is her alcoholism meant to echo Charlie's gluttony? Of course. Then there's Liz, the furious Asian help-meet--although making much of the passive racism of the piece would be as fruitless as making much of the ignorant misogyny of it. I adored Hong Chau in her small role in Inherent Vice and as the exhausted single mom in Driveways; less so in the racial burlesque of ignoble garbage like downsizing. Her Liz is somewhere between the two extremes: the warmth on the one side versus the brittle, harridan taskmaster on the other. To be fair, how much can you ask of one-third of a character?
And yet The Whale is possibly worth it all for Brendan Fraser. Battling an enormous fat suit and digital makeup, he is instantly legible as worthy of love and deserving of empathy. He's unfailingly optimistic about Ellie, even though Ellie is dangerously unhinged; so compelling is Fraser that it feels like the film betrays the despairing outcome it's been working towards in order to avoid breaking his heart. How much more effective would it be, though, to see the universe remorselessly punish a good person? I don't feel the movie makes a fetish of his weight, of his eating, and I wonder how much of that is due to Fraser refusing to treat Charlie as a collection of traits rather than an expression of messy authenticity. I can't think of many actors who could survive the repeated allusions to an eight-year-old's essay about Moby Dick in reference to the lonesome plight of a 600lb. man without devolving into mean, childish camp. Fraser's the only person in this who doesn't act like he's on stage emoting to the last row, as well as the only one who finds moments of genuine pathos amid the gasping theatrics. He shames this material and deserves every plaudit and opportunity destined to follow this most deserving of career renaissances. For the rest of it, alas, this is the first Aronofsky film I've disliked, the first one seduced by the metaphorical possibilities of its premise at the expense of art. It's only for Fraser's performance that The Whale's most fascinating thread comes into focus: the idea that writing is itself a bulwark against despair. From the essay Charlie reads obsessively to his entreaties to Ellie to write anything in a spiral-bound notebook to his invitation to his class to discard all assigned projects in favour of just a line of truth, writing is seen as a vehicle for fragile connection, a window into an eternal and collective consciousness. Charlie's walls are lined with books. He even seems aware he's a character in a play. In the beginning is the Word for Aronofsky, and I understand his attraction to The Whale in that respect. If only this precious defense of the chroniclers weren't blasted out of the arena by the strutting and mewling of crowing pontificators.