Darren Aronofsky is a divisive filmmaker, his latest film, “The Whale,” will be a divisive film.
Brendan Fraser stars as Charlie, an obese man (weighing close to 600 pounds) who is eating his way to an early grave.
Charlie is a teacher who keeps his camera off for his online class, as he doesn’t want his students to see his girth. He lives alone and is mourning the death of his true love. Eight years earlier Charlie left his wife (Samantha Morton) for another man, who would eventually take his own life; the suicide a catalyst for the extreme weight gain.
The very definition of a recluse, Charlie has only one friend, Liz (Hong Chau), a nurse who tends to him, as much as she can.
As one who cares for him both physically and emotionally and watching his declining health, Liz is afraid he only has days to live. Charlie wants to use this time to reconnect with his daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink), who one day shows up at his door full of attitude and anger towards the father who vanished from her life.
What sounds like a work that could earn comparison to the director’s far superior 2009 film “The Wrestler” (with its tale of a broken man seeking connection with his estranged daughter), is actually a simplistic, hollow, and annoyingly unsubtle character study looking for a dramatic urgency it cannot find.
The talk of the town regarding the film is the prosthetics on Brendan Fraser. They are impressive, but Aronofsky works too hard at showing them off. Viewers watch him lumber around his apartment with the unavoidable use of a walker. We see him showering, binging on food and candy, and are even treated to Charlie masturbating, the film bordering on fetishistic.
Much has been made of Brendan Fraser’s comeback performance, the good news is how great the actor is in the role. The real news is how this is no comeback. Fraser has always been around. As with any actor, his career has been one of ups, and downs.
Fraser has always been a good actor. His turns in films such as “School Ties” (1992), “Gods and Monsters” (1998) and “The Quiet American” (2002) are proof that he is much more than the silly Hollywood comedy lead of 1997’s “George of the Jungle” and the “Mummy” franchise.
Fraser certainly gives his strongest performance yet. Charlie is a heartbreaking creation and Fraser’s work will touch. The actor is raw and completely fearless, giving everything to the role.
The true heartbreak is how the film completely lets down Fraser’s excellent performance.
Aronofsky (working from a screenplay by Samuel D. Hunter, adapting his own play) doesn’t want to tug at your heart strings, he wants to play them as if he were a bassist in a Speed Metal band.
The director (who has a provocative trademark style) is too manipulative and exploits the character and his troubles rather than presenting them honestly.
Aronofsky is undeniably an artisan with a knack for turning pain and disgust into art. “Requiem for a Dream,” the underrated “The Fountain,” “mother!” and the aforementioned “The Wrestler” proofs of a high-functioning film director.
Perhaps it was the stagy trappings (the film is set in one room) that caused Aronofsky to border on the exploitative, as he seems to be adrift, never finding the connection between method and story.
In many moments, the filmmaker loses control of his actors. Playing out like a darker, vulgar, Neil Simon script, a few of the supporting actors get out of hand (there is a lot of unnecessary yelling), as if everyone was trying to upstage everyone else.
While there really isn’t a bad performance in the film, it feels as if each actor is flailing around, trying to find somewhere profound to land. Eventually, the supporting characters become dramatically disconnected to the well-drawn Charlie, which prevents any emotional resonance from taking shape.
By film’s end, it becomes clear that the depth found in many Aronofsky works eludes him here. Every dramatic beat plays out too simplistically, as if the screenplay was written by a first-year film student trying to impress his professor.
Nothing in this film feels authentic. Charlie’s choice to reconnect with his daughter feels forced, as is a strange episode with a door-to-door “missionary” named Thomas (Ty Simpkins) who shows up at Charlie’s apartment just as he needs help. Thomas assumes this to be a sign from God and wants to save Charlie’s soul.
The existence of Thomas’s character and the debates he has with certain people in Charlie’s life appear desperate and overplayed and further take away from the story’s focus.
Apart from Brendan Fraser’s excellent work, the entirety of “The Whale” seems desperate and overdone.
Darren Aronofsky’s directing and Samuel D. Hunter’s screenplay are heavy-handed and lack weightiness. The drama within the piece is eye-rolling obvious and any observations made are done on the most simplistic of levels.
“The Whale” features a powerful turn from Brendan Fraser; one that should open doors for the actor.
The rest is manipulative, cinematic blather.