Darren Aronofsky‘s The Whale, which stars Brendan Fraser as a 600-pound, housebound man filled with regret, has been one of the biggest hits of the early festival season, drawing minutes-long standing ovations at both the Venice and Toronto film festivals (I was there for the latter).
Fraser, after a long period in the wilderness, has made the sort of comeback that Hollywood loves more than anything, and appears a shoo-in for the Best Actor Oscar.
Brendan Fraser is, indeed, outstanding in the film and deserving of those accolades and the further ones that are on the way. But the film itself is not good. It’s mean-spirited while claiming to be empathetic, it consists almost entirely of people shouting mean things at each other in a way that feels manipulative, and it has almost no handle on most of its characters.
The Whale, which is based on a play of the same name by Samuel D. Hunter, who also wrote the movie, is set over the course of a couple of days in the life of Charlie (Fraser), an English professor who teaches online courses on Zoom and happens to weigh about 600 pounds.
He’s been in a spiral growing from a series of events years earlier: He left his wife for a male student, the wife (Samantha Morton) prevented him from ever again seeing his daughter, and then the male partner died, following a series of bad experiences with a church that proselytizes locally.
At the beginning of the movie, Charlie’s predicament resembles that of Nicolas Cage’s character in Leaving Las Vegas, only with obesity standing in for alcoholism. By the time we meet him, he’s pretty much already decided that he’s ready for death. Liz (Hong Chau) is his nurse and only friend, and always trying to get him medical attention, but he keeps declaring that he won’t go to the hospital.
And no, it’s not only called The Whale just because he’s the size of one ― there’s also an extremely clunky Moby Dick metaphor. But mostly, the film treats Charlie’s body as a sign of moral failing.
Fraser really does do outstanding, often-understated work here, but the movie itself is just foul. And the worst thing of all is that for much as the filmmakers swore up and down that they are presenting a sympathetic portrait, they’re really not.
The character of Charlie is introduced masturbating to gay porn, having a missionary (Ty Simpkins) walk in on him, and nearly dying from choking. It’s hard to interpret that as granting this character any particular dignity.
The other characters aren’t much better. Sadie Sink (Max from Stranger Things) plays his long-lost daughter, who is depicted as cartoonishly evil, while Samantha Morton, as the ex-wife, is given seething bitterness as her one note to play. Simpkins’ missionary character, meanwhile, is all over the map. Every revelation we get about him only makes him less interesting.
Sink’s character is so similar to Mickey Rourke’s daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) in Aronofsky’s The Wrestler that I had to look up whether the director really has a daughter who hates him (his only child is a young son).
The Whale, further, is an aggressively unpleasant motion picture, shot with no particular style or visual flair. Aronofsky’s first big film, Requiem for a Dream, was about drug addicts and featured some extremely, extremely hard-to-watch things, but at least it looked cool, as did the director’s Black Swan. But The Whale, which is based on a play, feels at every moment like a filmed play. (Another TIFF film, Sanctuary, is shot entirely in a single hotel suite but actually does interesting things with the camera).
Of course, the biggest part of the discourse with this film is the depiction of the Fraser character’s obesity. Fears have been raised over whether the film will lead to further stigmatizing of overweight people, with “The Whale” being used as shorthand to make fun of people for being fat. There’s also a serious tension, in that just about everyone, even those angry with the film, loves Brendan Fraser and sincerely wishes for his success.
I have some sympathy for this view, although I feel like such a story could be told if it really explored it empathetically. But The Whale did not do that.