'The Whale': Brendan Fraser is Excellent, But The Film Itself Struggles to Stay Afloat
The buzz surrounding Darren Aronofsky's latest film, The Whale, has mostly centered on its star, Brendan Fraser. Fraser has been out of the limelight for a while, but he is having quite the comeback right now. The Whale marks his first leading role in nearly a decade, and he has been garnering awards buzz from the moment the project was first announced. I'll admit that I was more excited to see this film for his performance than anything else, which is saying something given the immense talent that the rest of the cast and crew have. But while the talent involved is undeniable, I can't help but be conflicted by the film as a whole. While it does have some heartfelt moments, and Fraser gives one heck of a performance, the film feels limited, and the depiction of its main character is questionable at best.
Based on Samuel D. Hunter's play of the same name, The Whale details a week in the life of Charlie (Brendan Fraser), a morbidly obese man who lives alone in a small apartment in Idaho. He has very little interaction with the outside world, and is still reeling from the loss of his partner, Alan. He is visited and cared for by his only friend, Liz (Hong Chau), and a young missionary named Thomas (Ty Simpkins) who seeks to evangelize him. In addition to this, Charlie is trying to reconnect with his teenage daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink), who he has not seen in years. As Charlie faces the possibility that his days are numbered, he attempts to save his relationship with his daughter, and makes one last push for redemption.
I was surprised when it was announced that Darren Aronofsky would be directing this, as he isn't the type of filmmaker I would associate with a small-scale character drama. Granted, one of his best films, The Wrestler, is a more intimate character study, but his sensibilities are more suited for the story being told in that film compared the one being told in The Whale. There are moments where Aronofsky finds the heart and empathy he is trying to convey, but he lacks the nuance and emotional depth that this film desperately needs. Aronofsky is a rather showy filmmaker, but with this being a not so showy film, his weaknesses as a director are magnified. This is most glaring in how it depicts Charlie's obesity, as it often feels that the film can't decide whether it wants the audience to pity him or be disgusted by him. It is possible that the film wants both, but it plays both of these to such extremes that they clash. Some of the moments that tackle Charlie's obesity feel so on the nose and unnecessary in regards to the film as a whole, as they do very little but say "Hey, this guy is fat!" over and over again. The film could have easily cut these scenes, or they could have at least not laid them on so thick. But alas, it doesn't do this, and the film's general portrayal of obesity comes across as lazy and superficial. Perhaps the worst offender is a sequence that comes somewhat later in the film, in which Charlie is binge eating. While I can see what the intention of this scene is, it adds little to nothing to the overall film, and feels redundant. Everything this scene is trying to say has already been said much better earlier in the film, so it just feels gratuitous at that point.
The lens in which Aronofsky chooses to view Charlie feels strange, but the script isn't doing the film's portrayal of obesity any favors. The screenplay definitely has the trademarks of other plays that have been adapted for the screen, in that it is very dialogue heavy, it largely takes place in one location, and it has a staginess to it that makes the film feel a bit stilted and melodramatic. Samuel D. Hunter is a decent writer, but it feels like he just copied and pasted the stageplay and left it at that. The script itself isn't half bad, but some of the moments that likely work well on the stage just don't translate to the screen all that well. Some of them, namely the more emotionally charged monologues, do make an impact, but the rest feel a bit unwieldy in the context of the film. The broader characterization, theatrical dialogue, and the surface level depiction of some of its more prominent themes takes away from what the film is trying to accomplish, and make it feel a bit fake. There are moments that feel truthful, and some of these elements do help the film from time to time, but more often than not, it hinders it and makes some of the otherwise poignant moments fall flat.
What saves the film from being an outright disaster is its cast. Perhaps the biggest standout, aside from Fraser, is Hong Chau. Chau plays Charlie's only friend, Liz, who helps take care of him throughout the film. The scenes between Chau and Fraser are so full of life, and they are so great together. They have this dynamic that adds a bit of honesty to the film, and I personally could have watched a whole movie of just these two characters. Chau plays the complex emotions of her character beautifully, and she has such a compelling presence any time she is on screen. The rest of the players might not be on the level of Fraser and Chau, but they at least try to make the most of what they are given. Ty Simpkins isn't half bad, but his character's involvement in the film feels a bit clumsy and extraneous at times. Perhaps even more glaring is the character of Ellie, which is such a one-dimensional portrayal of an angsty teen that it sucks the humanity out of any scene she appears. I don't blame Sadie Sink for this at all, as the character is written so poorly that hardly anyone would be able to salvage it. Sink has proven herself to be talented on Stranger Things, and she shows glimmers of potential in a couple of scenes. I just think that this role limits her significantly, and takes the air out of the film quite a bit.
And of course, there's Brendan Fraser, who is quite incredible here. It is so great to see him on the big screen again, as he is such a genuine talent. Fraser takes on this role wholeheartedly, and brings so much empathy to the character. While some of the details of his character are dodgy, he is able to portray Charlie in a way that gives him more agency than what the script gives him. He elevates the character significantly, and is so vulnerable throughout. Fraser gets several monologues that he absolutely nails, and he pretty much lays everything on the table here. He performs the role as if he will never get another opportunity like this again, which is fitting because it adds to Charlie's motivation to make things right with his daughter before it is too late. It is a heartrending performance that gives the film a much-needed amount of depth, and should remind audiences just how incredible Fraser is as an actor.
The film is deliberately uncinematic, as it takes place in one location and is very much dialogue driven. That said, frequent Aronofsky collaborator Matthew Libatique does shoot this film quite beautifully, even if it isn't particularly showy. Aronofsky is a director who loves spectacle, so it is surprising that he holds himself back so much. But what little flash we do get from the film comes in the form of Libatique's camerawork. It isn't his best work, but he is such a reliable cinematographer that he still does a good job. He uses lamplight quite effectively, and the boxy, 1.33:1 aspect ratio puts us in the confined world that Charlie lives in. The score from Rob Simonsen is rather ethereal, and while it doesn't quite fit at times, it is quite lovely. The string arrangements are particularly moving, and adds some beauty to the film.
I am ultimately quite torn on The Whale, as the performances make it sing, but they are not enough to fully redeem some of its more glaring issues. The film is hamstrung by how surface level much of its major themes come across, as well as the lack of focus on its central character. There's no doubt in my mind that Aronofsky is a capable director, but this story is just not a great fit for his style and sensibilities. It's not that his direction is bad, per se, but it does feel a bit misguided at best. At the very least, this does give Brendan Fraser an excellent showcase, and is a welcome return to the screen for him. There are certainly moments where the film comes close to being more substantial and touching than it is, but it is rather shallow for the most part. I'm glad we get such a great performance from Fraser, but I do wish that the film around him was a better one.