You never know which Darren Aronofsky movie you are going to get – and so it is with The Whale…
In his latest release, Brendan Fraser plays Charlie. A morbidly obese, online English teacher teetering on the brink of death by consumption. Whether he’s jacking off to gay porn, choking on an oversized sandwich or just trying to take another breath as he stumbles around his flat, it’s clear that Charlie’s waiting for death as much as he’s avoiding life.
… I suspect that The Whale will find itself eventually beached by the sands of time.
Cared for by no-nonsense Lizzie (an excellent Hong Chau) she props him up to keep the memory of her suicidal brother Alan alive – because as we later learn – it was to be with Alan that Charlie abandoned his wife and daughter some eight years earlier. And this is where Aronofsky’s adaptation of Samuel D. Hunter’s 2012 play starts becoming almost stage-like. As characters like Ty Simpkin’s Thomas, an evangelical missionary and mysterious Dan the pizza man threaten to puncture Charlie’s guilt over Alan’s suicide, The Whale lurches into an overblown surfeit of self-convenience. Liz’s parents run the church that Thomas claims to hail from. The church’s hostility to gay sex is the reason why Alan killed himself and Thomas wants to save Charlie as a self-validating act of redemption. And if all that isn’t enough, Sadie Sink further invades Charlie’s misery as Ellie, his abrasively acidic daughter who has a problem with just about everybody she lays eyes on.
So, with such a hard-on for cross-collateral damage, it’s sad to see The Whale sadly depart from its nicely set-up first hour. Settling instead on the scabs it so desperately wants you to see, what in the end saves the movie? In a word – the acting.
Brendan Fraser deserves every plaudit going for his portrayal of Charlie. Infusing both grace, humility and the right amount of melancholy into an eternal optimist who has lost control of his life, his performance justly deserves to be Oscar engraved. Hong Chau beautifully grounds the concern of Lizzie as a compromised carer and Ty Simpkins is fine as a blinded boy following a distant, religious light. Sadly though Sadie Sink’s Ellie is a human hand grenade who is intent on exploding anyone’s life that her iPhone’s camera can capture. Fortunately though, waiting in the wings from Ellie’s contrived acts of hysteria is Samantha Morton. A creditable addition to any movie’s believability, her scenes with Brendan Fraser are properly transportive and briefly allow both characters to escape the present and stroll in the past of a forgotten intimacy.
That said, as a “postcards from the edge” kind of movie – there are some mortal consequences that have to be satisfied. Hurling itself through a plate glass mirror of these foreshadowed satisfactions, The Whale annoyingly drowns itself in magic realism mawkishness when the divine eventually comes a-knocking. Satiating a conspicuous need for saccharine, boxes are speedily ticked and nails are readied for their final insertion.
Seen against similar stuck-inside-a-captive-body classics as Javier Bardem in 2004’s The Sea Inside or 2007’s The Diving Bell and The Butterfly, I suspect that The Whale will find itself eventually beached by the sands of time. But if you want to take in Brendan Fraser smashing it inside a captive performance, then for sure look beyond this film’s leaking faults to witness a talent that still keeps everything else afloat.