Producers: Jeremy Dawson, Ari Handel and Darren Aronofsky Director: Darren Aronofsky Screenplay: Samuel D. Hunter Cast: Brendan Fraser, Sadie Sink, Ty Simpkins, Hong Chau, Samantha Morton and Sathya Sridharan Distributor: A24 Films
Brendan Fraser is getting fulsome praise for his affecting performance while encased in a prodigious fat suit in Darren Aronofsky’s “The Whale.” He brings pathos and sweetness to his character despite the unwieldy prosthetics designed by Adrien Morot; it’s his best work since “Gods and Monsters.”
Unfortunately the film suffers from an equally cumbersome impediment it proves unable to overcome—the theatrical excesses and claustrophobic staginess of Samuel D. Hunter’s script, which he adapted from his own unaccountably well-received 2012 play. This is an instance when one can appreciate an actor’s accomplishment while acknowledging that the vehicle to which he’s contributing isn’t worthy of his talent.
Charlie (Fraser) is a morbidly obese man living in a small apartment in Moscow, Idaho. He’s literally eating himself to death: according to his friend Liz (Hong Chau), a nurse who comes by daily to look in on him, he’s suffering from congenital heart disease and will soon die unless he curtails his unhealthy practices. Yet she realizes the futility of her entreaties, even bringing him the huge sandwiches he wolfs down. He also orders pizza and rifles through the kitchen drawers for candy bars. Though every attempt to rise from the recliner and lurch to the hallway on his walker is a terrible struggle, he continues to eat prodigiously.
His backstory emerges fairly quickly. He’s a writing teacher, though now he works exclusively online, instructing small classes via Zoom from home; he tells them that the camera on his laptop is broken, though actually he’s disconnected it to hide his appearance. His binge eating began after the death of his partner Adam, Liz’s brother, for whom he left his wife Mary (Samantha Morton) and daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink) years ago.
The time frame of the action is from Monday to Friday of a week that’s stormy in terms of the weather as well as the dramatics in Charlie’s apartment. He is himself in distress, repeatedly poring over a brief essay on “Moby Dick” that obviously has special meaning for him. He has a few regular visitors–Liz, who delivers an extra-sized wheelchair he hoists himself into, the pizza delivery man (Sathya Sridharan) he always instructs to leave the order at the door, leaving payment in the mailbox, and a bird for which he puts crumbs on the windowsill.
But there are several unanticipated intruders. The first is Thomas (Ty Simpkins), a young missionary from a local church. He’s come to Idaho from Iowa, for reasons that will be spelled out laboriously over the course of the drama, and repeatedly returns although Charlie makes clear that he’s not interested in his message. In the process he’ll become involved with Charlie’s two other unexpected visitors: his daughter, who’s furious with him for having abandoned her—and with the world in general—and his equally angry wife, who’s upset with the fact that Ellie and he are in contact again and harbors unceasing hostility for his having left her for Adam in the first place.
The portrait that Hunter and Aronofsky are drawing of Charlie is ostensibly a sympathetic one, and Fraser, with his haunted look of longing and sorrow, makes it impossible for a viewer not to empathize with the character, especially when the other actors are all encouraged to overemote, as though they were playing to the furthest recesses of the second balcony; as surly Ellie, Sink gives a high-pitched, one-note performance that comes off as especially shrill, but the usually reliable Morton isn’t far behind, and Simpkins overdoes the naive earnestness.
But the problems of “The Whale” aren’t limited to the histrionics; the play’s construction is deeply flawed. Despite the desire to endear Charlie to us, and identify him as a figure straining for personal redemption even as his heart is failing him, he remains, despite all Fraser’s efforts, a self-destructive figure who’s also a self-loathing man. (It’s easy to see why some have criticized the play and film for indulging in the very fatphobic attitudes it ostensibly rejects. The heavy-handed allusions to Melville are another difficulty.)
And structurally the piece is a shambles, dependent on that hoariest of theatrical devices, the pounding on the door that invariably occurs whenever a dramatic highpoint is being reached in a conversation. The cliché happens so often that you might think yourself in a reverse version of a French bedroom farce with its comically slamming doors, or a TV soap opera where the imminent revelation of some dark secret is suddenly interrupted by the ringing of a telephone. On the stage such things can be tolerated; on the screen they quickly grow absurd. Matters aren’t helped by the inability of Aronofsky and his collaborators—production designers Mark Friedberg and Robert Pyzocha, cinematographer Matthew Libatique and editor Andrew Weisblum—to “open up” the action to any appreciable degree. The camera roves around the apartment, but inevitably close-ups predominate, and given the overacting, they’re often not attractive. Nor does Rob Simonson’s emphatic score help matters.
The catalyst for the tragedy of Adam’s death and Charlie’s self-destructive grief, moreover, is a target that may have resonance for Hunter, but in this context seems all too easy: religious fundamentalism. Adam’s suicidal decisions, it’s revealed, were a reaction to condemnation from his father, a church leader, of his life-style, and Charlie’s eating disorder was in turn a reaction to his loss. (Thomas’ tribulations also stem from this source.) Thus the culpability for all the pain lies in religious intolerance. In this connection one might note one change from play to film. In the stage version, Thomas was a Mormon missionary; here he’s a member of an evangelical sect—unnamed, but given the setting most probably the notorious so-called Christian Reconstruction movement centered in Moscow. One can understand the alteration, of course. The LDS was a pretty good sport about “The Book of Mormon,” even taking out ads in its playbills, because that was fairly easy when the treatment was a good-natured spoof. One expects the situation would be rather different if Mormonism were charged explicitly as a cause of suicide.
The performance of Brendan Fraser—graceful despite the prosthetic encumbrances—is a reason to consider seeing “The Whale.” But despite his admirable work, the film itself sinks.