How many times have you thought to yourself, “Great performance but the movie was just okay”? Even Oscars handed to Renée Zellweger in Judy, Jim Broadbent in Iris, or Jessica Lange in Blue Sky couldn’t make the films themselves stand the test of time. I’m afraid the same historical distinction may befall Brendan Fraser in The Whale, the newest film from Darren Aronofsky, and while perfectly fine, never transcends the magnificent performance at its center.
Adapted by Samuel D. Hunter from his own play, the story centers around Charlie (Fraser), a morbidly obese gay man who appears to welcome his own imminent death. Unwilling to seek medical care, Charlie remains mostly confined to his couch as he gorges on food and ignores the words of his friend Liz (Hong Chau), a nurse, that he is experiencing congestive heart failure and will soon die if he takes no action. Why and how Charlie came to this state of being unfolds throughout, and despite melodramatic moments and often repetitive scenes, the movie works because Fraser almost rips your guts out with this ferociously passionate yet gentle giant.
When we first meet Charlie, he’s masturbating to gay porn in his small Midwestern apartment. A random visitor named Thomas (Ty Simpkins), a missionary out to save mankind one awkward door knock at a time, enters at this vulnerable moment. Throughout, several people will come and go, such as the aforementioned Liz, who also happens to be the sister to Charlie’s late partner. We also hear from his ex-wife Mary (Samantha Morton) and most notably his daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink), an aggressively angry teen who resents that her father abandoned her while still a child. Needless to say, this film betrays its stage origins with perhaps more doors opening and being slammed shut than found in Noises Off.
Clearly a film made during COVID with its limited sets and cast, Aronofsky, collaborating with his long-time cinematographer Matthew Libatique, masterfully films what could easily have been a claustrophobic and dull story. At times, however, Charlie gets the horror movie treatment as the music and his actions can feel monstrous. Witnessing Charlie attempt to stand or watching him slather Ranch dressing all over his pizza and inhale it feels shot through with a sense of terror. Think of how Aronofsky handled Ellen Burstyn’s character in Requiem For A Dream and you’ll get the picture, although he doesn’t resort to fisheye lenses or rapid cutting to make his point.
Charlie knows how the world perceives him and his deep depression has brought him to simply let go of his life. He won’t allow his students to see his face, pretending his camera doesn’t work on Zoom calls, and the same goes for his contactless exchanges with a man who frequently delivers him pizzas. Charlie feels worthless and seems to want to spare the world of his presence. Over the course of a week, we watch him spar with Liz over his healthcare, providing the film with some of its richest, layered moments. Chau, who never gives the same performance twice, offers a brittle, intense yet immensely moving portrayal as a friend who enables Charlie, yet feels so helpless as she watches him fall apart.
His daughter, however, seemingly wants nothing to do with him, but still manages to burst into the room whenever she has a beef with him. They work out a deal which keeps her coming back, and despite Sink really delivering sparks, the character’s bottomless pit of anger sometimes feels a little one-note and just a little too much. Still, it all seemed worth it for a climactic reaction which connected, however briefly. Morton, who arrives late in the film, also ramped up the intensity just when it felt like we had been covering the same ground one too many times. This felt especially true of Simpkins’ scenes. Why this character could gain access to a stranger’s life so easily, especially when he preaches gospel to a man who clearly doesn’t want to hear it, seemed like a cheap way to insert the concept of religion into the film. It doesn’t entirely work, yet Charlie’s grace, even when calling Thomas out, felt beautifully heroic. It felt, however, like one plot strand too many.
I also took issue with how certain characters reacted to Charlie’s size. The film pulls no punches when it comes to showing his body, clearly augmented by a fat suit and some CGI, but I didn’t buy some of the pearl-clutching gasps and sly iPhone photography we see from people who should know how to control themselves just a little bit better.
Still, despite a pile on of so many soapy elements and missteps, Fraser, who has spent much of his career in fluffier projects, transcends it all as if his life depended on it. Charlie has such soulful, kind qualities and we see them in Fraser’s eyes, in a casual playfulness which peeks through in his scenes with Chau, and in those explosive moments when he struggles to find meaning in his life. Fraser turned me into a totally sobbing mess with his fantastic work. The film may stumble here and there, but you won’t want to miss The Whale for Fraser’s unforgettable performance.
By Glenn Gaylord, Senior Film Critic
The Whale opens in US theaters on Friday, December 9th , 2022.