The Whale (2022)

Directed by Darren Aronofsky; Written by Samuel D. Hunter

Self-hatred and reconciliation make for potent drama in Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale, the story of a morbidly obese shut-in who tries to reenter his daughter’s life after spending 8 years outside of it.   

Brendan Fraser checks back into cinematic high society as protagonist Charlie, an English teacher who teaches online college classes with his webcam off. Writer Samuel D. Hunter and Aronofsky waste no time in telling us why that is, as our first glimpse of Charlie is a shot of him from behind in a moment of self-pleasure. He’s immediately caught by a door-knocking missionary, and the moment is milked for its full comedic effect, with Charlie’s big body dwarfed by the even greater embarrassment he’s meant to feel. Not only that, the physical exertion and shock of the moment commences a health crisis for Charlie. Real sensitive stuff from the filmmakers. 

This is what sets in motion this story of painful reconnection and self-acceptance as Charlie’s waning health sees him try to make amends with his past, the consequences of past actions, and the people he’s hurt. It’s meant to be heart-wrenching, and oftentimes is, but given how it all gets underway, everything has the feel of a bully’s redemption. 

It’s debatable whether there’s thematic merit to Charlie’s condition or a sincere engagement with it. Is it rather a means to keep Charlie sequestered at home? And is obesity the only condition Hunter considers shameful enough to drive a person into hiding?

Regardless of intent, there’s no question Aronofsky treats it as spectacle, setting up the moment we see Charlie’s full physique for maximum shock effect with Rob Simonsen’s score swelling as Charlie tries to stand up and take a few steps under his own weight. Aronofsky’s last, the thinly disguised climate crisis allegory mother!, had the intellectual heft of a high school sophomore essay, and The Whale features similarly basic filmmaking to start as it follows a trite, predictable syntax. Even when Charlie’s body issues have been firmly established, Aronofsky still lingers and forgets to really engage with the underlying reason for it all: the family drama.  

There will be a (justified) discussion over the depiction of Charlie’s obesity, and in an age where Hollywood prefers hiding actors under fat suits and makeup instead of casting people with a lived experience closer to that of the character, there might even be some shots fired at Brendan Fraser, whose physique is far from Charlie’s. This would be undue, as Brendan Fraser treats his character with compassion and complete self-effacement. 

Fraser’s been out of the spotlight for a good long while, and online petition/internet championing aside, his performance in The Whale is a showcase for him and the deep humanity he’s capable of, with his doleful eyes never more at home in the face of a man who ruined himself in his shame.  

Hong Chau shines alongside Fraser as Liz, his only real friend, a tough love nurse who checks in on Charlie daily. There’s genuine love and affection there, and therefore an equal despair to witness a close connection surely kill themselves slowly. Chau evokes it all with zero sap. 

There to complete the character trifecta is Ellie, Charlie’s estranged daughter, played by Sadie Sink. Sink, famous for playing Max, a hellraiser teen with a heart of gold on Stranger Things, does so again here convincingly. Ellie’s an archetype surly teen who hides herself and her loneliness behind common cruelty, and Sink does have her moments, but ultimately finds it hard to drive a wedge between Ellie and Max. 

There’s plenty to point fingers at behind the camera in The Whale, and the spectacle surrounding Brendan Fraser’s performance will distract from the barebones plot and narrative that’s somehow still underserved. Not undeserved, however, is the acclaim Brendan Fraser is receiving, and together with Chau, they keep The Whale engaging with their stirring performances. 

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