Ever since its premiere at the Venice Film Festival last year, the discourse surrounding the Darren Aronofsky-directed The Whale has been successfully constrained to become a conversation about Brendan Fraser’s performance as the film’s protagonist, Charlie… which is a bit of a blessing in disguise – or more appropriately, a blessing under a tonne of makeup and prosthetics.
Despite the fact Darren Aronofsky’s modus operandi involves writing and directing his movies, some of his strongest efforts, like The Wrestler or Black Swan, were penned by collaborators. Therefore, following how The Whale was slowly coming together as a fruit of Aronofsky’s collaboration with Samuel D. Hunter, a millennial (of the elder variety, mind you) playwright prodigy whose work has been consistently lauded, understandably bred excitement and hope that the movie would stand toe-to-toe with some of Aronofsky’s best works. Unfortunately, it does not; and it takes only a few minutes of watching this movie to clue in as to why that is.
The Whale – a de facto single-location stage-to-screen calque of Hunter’s award-winning play – opens provocatively with the camera slowly creeping up on Charlie (Brendan Fraser), a morbidly obese English teacher, as he masturbates while watching gay pornography on his laptop and, nearing climax, almost gets a heart attack. This in its own right is a narrative convenience and a piece of thematic foreshadowing indicating both that Charlie may be on his way out, if a phenotypic assessment wasn’t enough, and that pursuing fulfilment of selfish needs may be somehow linked to the reason why he is where he is in his life, which is inches away from self-destruction.
However, the spasms of his self-loathing snowballing into a self-induced cardiac arrest are interrupted by a wandering missionary Thomas (Ty Simpkins) who calms Charlie down by reading an essay to him. We are told this is what always calms him down. Again, a keen viewer will take note of this convenient foreshadowing. And only seconds later, Liz (Hong Chau) makes an appearance. She is a nurse caring for Charlie and – come to think of it – his only friend. As she berates him for refusing to seek medical treatment for what she surmises is congestive heart failure, we learn that what we are watching are Charlie’s last days on this mortal coil.
Charlie knows he is dying. He is well aware of the fact he has driven himself into an early grave as a result of – as he tells us himself – going through a mental breakdown following his lover’s tragic death. And as his body is slowly giving up under the burden of medical ailments, Charlie takes it upon himself to mend fences with his estranged daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink) who also conveniently, or magically, appears in his dimly lit apartment, which by her own account smells funny.
Thus, we are introduced to four out of six characters in this story. The other two are Mary (Samantha Morton) and a pizza delivery guy Dan (Sathya Sridharan), but they make their appearances a bit later, although equally conveniently. Which isn’t really a surprise because by the time the first scene of the film comes to a close, you should have a reasonably good understanding of the fact that The Whale is nothing more than a performative exercise in narrative convenience and a festival of trampling on the show-don’t-tell rule, from which Brendan Fraser’s acting attempts to draw attention away at all costs.
Put simply, The Whale is an annoyingly bad movie elevated beyond mediocrity by its central performance. And to be brutally specific, it is not exactly the performance alone that is doing the heavy lifting for the movie, but rather the meta-textual circumstances surrounding Brendan Fraser’s return to the limelight, which rhyme – again, quite conveniently – with the film’s central thesis. Now, I don’t want to sound like some kind of vitriol-spewing negative Nancy, but I have never understood the appeal of Brendan Fraser’s acting prowess, nor the importance of his resurgence in the zeitgeist. If I were to make comparisons with other relatively recent comebacks, such as the wildly ‘memefied’ McConaissance, I don’t think what is on offer here is even remotely comparable to Dallas Buyers Club or Mud. Sure, Fraser is innately likeable and he’s doing what he can to amplify the role he was given with non-verbal emoting, but his turn in The Whale is nowhere near as impressive as it is often touted as.
However, I must be clear here: an actor can only do so much with the lines he is given. So, I too shall carefully separate the performance from the character and note that insofar as Fraser’s early roles are considered in comparison, what he is doing here is a quantum leap in performance that perhaps indicates we will get to see him spread his wings in future roles. But it is inescapable that just as the narrative as a whole, the character of Charlie is completely undermined by schmaltzy conveniences and reliance on surface-level tropes.
Let’s just say that it’s hard not to notice that The Whale was adapted from a stage play. What is more, its biggest drawback may be the simple fact it was adapted from a play by the author of the play, who may not have been best positioned to shape it up for cinematic treatment. And to top it all off, I sense that Darren Aronofsky also chose not to mess with the source material too much, perhaps out of reverence, which in turn amplifies the ‘staginess’ of the story. And this is somewhat unusual given the fact that even the smallest and most localized stories Aronofsky had previously brought to the screen made stunning use of the many degrees of freedom cinema affords.
Let’s take The Wrestler as a comparative case study, arguably a companion piece to The Whale in that it also deals with a character seeking redemption through familial reconciliation. However, Mickey Rourke’s prowess notwithstanding, what elevates The Wrestler is Aronofsky’s subtle use of sound and perspective that allows the viewer to inhabit the headspace of its protagonist. As we hang onto Randy’s shoulder when he enters the shop floor, we hear what he hears in his head – crowds cheering. We hear his tinnitus occasionally. We are effectively trapped in his mind.
None of that is in operation in The Whale. We never invade Charlie’s inner sanctum. We observe him as though he was an animal in a zoo enclosure, or more appropriately, an actor trapped on stage. Moreover, the filmmakers make absolutely no effort to mitigate these frequent reminders that the story originated as a single-location play and gleefully copy-pasted the script written to be experienced by a live audience who can’t cross over to the world of the stage. In a theatrical setting this is part and parcel of the experience, and we expect to be told certain things as opposed to being shown. Such are the limitations of the form, none of which exist in the world of cinema. The filmmaker can show us what live audiences can’t see or let us hear something only the characters hear. Cinema enables thoughts to be transmitted using simple imagery, subtle non-verbal cues and other means that a viewer at the theatre could not pick up if the actor decided not to project their voice or animate their actions beyond reasonable levels of believability.
This entire movie is an experience in listening to people shouting out bits of exposition, talking about things they have no motivations to do, interacting with characters who shouldn’t logically be there and reacting in ways humans simply do not. It’s a string of conveniences leading up to a pre-conceived conclusion that reminds me why Stephen King always laughs at the fact John Irving allegedly starts writing books by writing the last sentence. The Whale honestly looks like a movie written backwards using nothing but shouting and visual cliché as tools. And its only saving grace is Brendan Fraser in a fat suit, whose likeability rather than dramatic acumen do much of the heavy lifting for the film.
Let’s be frank here: Fraser is great in the film, but the film isn’t great as a result. In actuality, the film is a basket case without his Awards-friendly bout of physical acting armed with at least one so-called Oscar moment. You’ll know exactly which moment it is, once you see it. It’s impossible to miss. But as a whole, The Whale is a pile of performative pablum that fails to use the subtlety of cinema to elevate what otherwise is just a stage play that someone decided to film. Its heavy-handedness in stringing the viewer along a staircase of conveniences is why the film should be a complete failure and an absolute nadir in Darren Aronofsky’s directorial portfolio. I suppose he owes Brendan Fraser a drink or at least a hug because his turn as Charlie successfully distracts the viewer from the absolute firework display of eye-rolling tedium the narrative is composed of.
It is as though someone put enough money together to pay a professional actor to take the lead in a high school play written by a bunch of edgy know-it-all teenagers without even countenancing the idea of writing a second draft before rehearsing. Hell is paved with good intentions, and I suppose it is not enough to just wish to have something meaningful to say. The Whale simply lacks gravitas to put its money where its mouth is and ground itself in any tangible reality. Thus, it can only be seen as a ham-fisted morality play that allows the author to manipulate the viewer and evoke a visceral emotional response as the movie reaches its climax amidst shouting and completely forgoing the simple idea that cinema is not a stage and allows the creator to achieve much more with a script, if they do so choose.