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The Whale Review: Misses the Mark

Director Darren Aronofsky and his star, Brendan Fraser, aim for empathy but come up short.

Darren Aronofsky has a thing for bodies in distress: agonized addicts in Requiem for a Dream, the strain and crack of Black Swanmother!’s fraught pregnancy. And now there is The Whale, a lugubrious chamber drama that premiered here at the Venice Film Festival on Sunday. Adapted from Samuel D. Hunter’s 2012 play, The Whale is a story of a morbidly obese man, Charlie (Brendan Fraser), living out what might be his last days as his heart falters and his mind is lost to regret. 

It’s tough stuff that unfolds pretty much in one room. Which doesn’t give Aronofsky much space for his usual visual panache. So, nearly all of that overeager energy is channeled through The Whale’s depiction of Charlie’s body, a prosthetic creation that Fraser wears like a cross on his shoulder. This is a mighty act of becoming, the film seems to insist—and also one of empathy. But what’s expressed instead is a kind of leering horror, a portrait of a man gone to catastrophic ruin so that we, in the audience, may tap into our nobler, higher minds and see the worthy human being beneath the frightful exterior. 

That doesn’t feel anything like empathy. I trust that that intention was there, on both Aronofsky and Fraser’s parts, but their execution is turgid and ghastly. Nearly every time Charlie goes to take a bite of food, Aronofsky’s cues up Rob Simonsen’s unrelentingly bombastic score, plaintive and sinister strings indicating that something very, very bad—and scary—is happening. What might have been a somber and carefully considered study of a lonely man grappling with his past becomes a posturing labor.

Charlie lives alone in an apartment somewhere in Idaho. He’s a shut-in who earns a living teaching writing classes online, his camera turned off to shield himself from his students. (Or is it to shield them from him?) There is at least one caring friend in his life, Liz (Hong Chau), a nurse who tends to Charlie’s failing health with resigned concern. Charlie and Liz have a particularly close, sorrowful connection that is revealed later in the film, once Charlie and Liz’s fading little life together is interrupted by outsiders.

One is an Evangelical missionary, Thomas (Ty Simpkins), who bursts into Charlie’s world at an inopportune moment: Charlie has just finished masturbating to gay porn, with the video still playing on the laptop when he seizes up with chest pain. (Again, I see little empathy in the way this scene is framed and choreographed.) Thomas, seeing this heaving totem of misery, wants to save the dying Charlie’s soul, a witless effort toward a man who feels he’s past redemption—spiritually, morally, physically. 

But maybe Charlie can at least patch things up with his teenage daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink), though the two have grown entirely estranged since Charlie walked out on his marriage (to Mary, played by Samantha Morton) to pursue a great love affair with a male student. That man, Alan, is now dead, which has become the defining tragedy of Charlie’s life—well, that and his tattered relationship with Ellie. As his end looms, Charlie tries desperately, sadly to reestablish a bond with Ellie, with an offer to set her up financially for the future. 

Aronofsky can’t find a way to make all these character entrances and exits cinematic. He and Hunter, an often terrific playwright doing his own adapting here, won’t let go of the tricks and forms that work in live theater but are stilted and too presentational on camera. There is some easy naturalism in the film’s opening stretches, conversation that sounds familiar and credible. But the film works itself up into a self-conscious lather as it goes, building and building until people are just loudly declaring motivations at one another. With that overheated score blaring away, it’s almost as if Aronofsky is making a parody of hyper-serious fall-movie dramas, complete with a physical transformation at the center.

One roots for Fraser to succeed, despite the garishness of that transformation. He’s been a likable screen presence for decades now, capable of both affable winks of self-awareness and old-fashioned earnestness. But he’s lost here, overwhelmed by a task that seems almost designed to be intensely scrutinized and picked apart. When we do feel some of the innate sweetness that has always animated Fraser’s work, radiating through all these layers of effort, it’s usually because he’s acting opposite Chau, whose performance is the only thoughtfully calibrated thing in the film. Fraser and his other co-stars only threaten to tear down the delicate space that Chau creates and then must rebuild, scene after scene, throughout the movie.

The Whale is meant to be a poignant consideration of guilt, sexuality, religion, remorse. We really only know that, though, because the movie shouts it at us. Charlie, Ellie, and Mary are more avatars of ideas than true characters, which seems to suit Aronofsky’s vision of the story just fine. A coldness seeps into the picture from behind the camera, a calculating gaze that turns The Whale into a static (if extraordinarily loud) diorama of pain. Here’s Charlie, keening and pleading behind a pane of glass for all of us to sigh and pout and gawk at, before moving on to the next fleeting curiosity. 

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