The Whale Review | Amazing Performance, So-So Movie

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Brendan Fraser delivers an Oscar calibre performance in director Darren Aronofsky’s otherwise uneven and manipulative drama The Whale. It’s not that Fraser’s performance is better than The Whale deserves. It’s actually what the film precisely needs. It’s that the story itself – a repurposing of a stage play by Samuel D. Hunter – can’t fully lock down the abject misery that it wants to focus on. Much like Sam Mendes’ similarly afflicted (and also very well performed) Empire of Light from earlier in the month, The Whale is a character drama that has too much on its mind to be anything more than overbearing and scattered. Without Fraser’s tremendous contribution and an equally praiseworthy supporting performance from Hong Chau, Aronofsky’s latest would be the filmmaker’s worst.

Fraser plays Charlie, an unhealthily obese man from Idaho with a laundry list of other related health issues who’s inching closer to death’s door. He already doesn’t leave his second floor apartment, every small household task is a gargantuan chore, and when he teaches online English classes, Charlie refuses to turn his camera on so no one can see how he lives. His only caregiver and chief enabler is an old friend and nurse name Liz (Hong Chau) who proves to be Charlie’s only companion and connection to the outside world. That all changes with the arrival of a passing missionary (Ty Simpkins) preaching the gospel of a doomsday-like cult that Charlie and his former husband used to be a part of, and the sudden reappearance of his estranged daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink). Charlie hasn’t seen Ellie since she was eight – when he left his ex-wife to start dating one of his male students – and although she treats her father with great contempt and scorn, she still needs his help to keep from failing out of school.

The Whale is oppressively depressing from start to finish, filmed almost entirely in a single location that’s presented in a claustrophobic 4:3 format. The Whale is a film where on can see the stage roots of the production, and not in a flattering way when one considers the unevenness of the material and Aronofsky’s direction of it. If the film had focused on the relationship between Fraser, Chau, and Sink, it wouldn’t have been great, but The Whale would at least give itself a reason for all of its rafter shouting theatricality and wallowing in misery. Instead, The Whale darts about between a variety of themes and theories about its main character that are too underbaked to satisfy anyone wanting to see an honest character drama.

The Whale is a film about people at their worst trying to get by in a harsh and uncaring world, including Charlie. The once thinner and happily married teacher is a self-indulgent narcissist and depressive who’s slowly committing suicide, refusing to seek external health services, and ignoring reality, which would be more tragic if it didn’t feel like Aronofsky was passing harsh judgment on these life choices by framing a lot of The Whale like it’s a horror movie (including some truly sour musical stings). Liz constantly chastises Charlie about his condition and wants to protect him from those who wish him mental harm, but she’ll still provide him with all the junk food he can eat because she feels guilty about past decisions in their friendship. The missionary is hiding a secret from everyone around him, and he refuses to go away even after everyone except the somewhat accommodating Charlie has made him feel supremely uncomfortable. And Ellie is a thoroughly unlikable, patently unredeemable sociopath who is contemptible throughout despite having valid reasons for disliking her father beyond his weight condition.

Films about the dark side of human nature need to have some humanity baked into their DNA, even if it’s just a little bit in the margins, and if it weren’t for the contributions of Fraser and Chau, The Whale wouldn’t have a shred of it. Everything that’s good about The Whale can be found in them. Fraser brings a much needed sense of misplaced optimism to Charlie, taking the character into the light and away from the cautionary tale Aronofsky wants to put forward. Charlie is a person perpetually on the verge of crying, and someone who clearly wants to die even if he can’t admit it out loud. It’s a delicate performance that takes root in messy overturned soil. Fraser deserves all of the acclaim he has gathered thus far for his performance in The Whale, but he also boasts strong chemistry in his scenes with Chau, a supporting performer who matches the star beat for beat. For Fraser, in particular, it’s every bit the comeback movie pre-release buzz has made it out to be.

The rest of The Whale isn’t up to their level, and the problems with the script and its direction are obvious. The actual plot of The Whale is convenient at the best of times and nonsensical in its motivations and development at its worst. Sink (who is doing what she can with what she’s been given) and Simpkins (who is underwhelming and saddled with the worst and least forceful and necessary character) are left to flail about by Aronofsky, who only needs them to hit their marks and put their fingers on Charlie and Liz’s pressure points. The details and specifics about their place in Charlie’s life are agonizingly simplistic and lacking in specificity. Charlie’s daughter is only on hand to make him feel worse about things than he already does, and the missionary is tacked on simply for the purpose of talking about nondescript Christian faith. The film’s depiction of absentee parenting is as cruel as cinema tends to get and handled without any degree of subtlety or tact, and the message of salvation is so hopelessly muddled that it’s impossible to decipher what Aronofsky is trying to say, especially during the wildly corny and unearned ending. 

It’s just misery upon misery with Aronofsky stopping to linger and dwell upon every indignity and awkward moment that can be witnessed, but refusing to build any sort of substance around it. It’s judgmental, even though one hopes that’s not what Aronofsky was going for. It’s humourless in the extreme, and yet, great patches of this border uncomfortably on self-parody, especially whenever Aronofsky’s eye stops to linger and scoff at Charlie’s various conditions. It never comes across as truly tragic because it feels like someone gawking at the misfortune of others instead of a serious conversation. And the things that Aronofsky wants The Whale to be about – depression, obesity, trauma response, fathers and daughters, enablers, misplaced faith – are under developed when compared to the leering visual nature of the film and its gross out tendencies. Nothing links up here in a compelling or rational way. It’s a film that desperately wants to be taken seriously, but it’s try-hard forcefulness makes it near impossible. Nothing about The Whale is effortless, and it’s coming apart at the seams.

Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, Mother!, The Wrestler, Black Swan) is a filmmaker well versed in the darker side of human nature, but The Whale is his ultimate nadir, saved from the abyss by a performance so towering that its impact on the net result can’t be ignored. The Whale is constantly teetering on the brink of the abyss via its obsession with heavy handed emotional nihilism, but Fraser keeps things firmly anchored. It’s a bad movie built upon themes so cheaply layered that it’s impossible to parse any of them seriously, but one that’s still worth seeing because it features some of the best performance of the year in any movie. You have to take a whole lot of bad to get to what’s good about The Whale.

The Whale opens in Canadian theatres on Wednesday, December 21, 2022.

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#Whale #Review #Amazing #Performance #SoSo #Movie

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