“The Whale” is not a great, artful or innovative film, and it goes to some pains to never let us forget that.
It’s overtly theatrical, never remotely shedding its stage-play origins. It’s a one-set show, with just five characters with actors often acting in that “playing to the balcony” vehemence and volume, sometimes conversing but more often monologuing blocks of exposition, back-story, grievances and clues about secret pain.
The protagonist is trapped, afraid and yet brave, flawed and yet somehow ennobled, gay and martyred and fatalistic because he is living out what might be his last days in Matthew Shepard country, that reddest of states, Idaho.
It’s practically a “State of Broadway Drama” address in subject and style.
But none of those limitations, labels and theatrical tropes matter when we’re watching Brendan Fraser, in the performance of a lifetime, humanize and put a face, heart and soul on Charlie, a man who has lived his last years eating himself to death out of grief and regret.
And none of its stage-bound theatricality matters by the time the film’s touching, transcendent finale unfolds. Darren Aronofsky’s film of this Drama Desk Award-winning play by Idaho-born playwright Samuel D. Hunter, who touched on similar themes in his sad and comically eccentric TV series “Baskets,” the one with Zach Galafianakis and the late comic Louis Anderson, captures its pathos and pathology and arrives on the screen with its beating heart intact.
“The Whale” reminds us how we knowingly or thoughtlessly judge the morbidly obese. It makes us wince with every night’s two-pizza delivery, the slices devoured two at a time by the reclusive Charlie. We note the appearance that we think invites this judgement, the face and neck deformed into folds of fat fleshiness, barely functioning legs shaped like hams, the gut butt of out-of-control obesity.
We see the keg-sized re-usable Big Gulp tankard, the endless stashes of candy, chips and litre bottles of Pepsi and in our first flashes of empathy, wonder how any of us escape this fate in this sedentary culture and its NRA-all-powerful weaponized fast food industry.
But we meet Charlie by voice, his screen blacked-out in the Zoom online college writing class because “my camera isn’t working,” his students listening to his patient encouragement, his emphatic insistence that they find a way to write true and write their truth, imparting with every word his belief in their value.
And then we see him at his ugliest, beached on a battered sofa, covered in sweat and a tent-sized T-shirt decorated with food stains, masturbating to gay porn.
That’s how the door-to-door “missionary” (Ty Simpkins of “Jurassic World”) finds him, coming in as Charlie wheezes and gasps for breath, leaving his door unlocked because getting up to lock it is an ordeal he has all but given up.
The kid’s from the locally famous New Life Church and he quickly comes to believe “God sent me here today for a reason.” A simple laugh sends Charlie into wheezing fits and chest pains that assure him that this is it, he’s about to die. The missionary isn’t likely to save Charlie’s soul. Charlie won’t even let him call an ambulance to save his life. He’s uninsured.
The fat man just begs the kid to read this essay Charlie himself was reading aloud, a calming exercise based on a high school kid’s interpretation of “Moby Dick,” of all things.
The film’s first act lays out the parameters of Charlie’s existence, the one-obese-man logistics it takes to sleep, shower, work and simply get out of a chair when you’re carrying around this enormous burden. He pays for his pizzas by leaving money in the mailbox because he can’t stand the look he’d get if anybody he didn’t know was to see him.
We meet Charlie’s off-the-books caregiver, the spitfire nurse Liz (Hong Chau of “The Menu” and TV’s “Watchmen”) who curses him, pulls out the stethoscope and pronounces “congestive heart failure” and hits him with another pleading and profane tirade to let her get him to the hospital.
Then she gives Charlie another massive meatball sub for him to almost choke-to-death on, and steps outside to smoke so that she almost doesn’t see that. That bucket of chicken? That’s the next binge.
“The Whale” is destined to slowly, incrementally and sympathetically, explain who Liz is to Charlie and how he got this way. And it will bring his past back into his present as his long-estranged daughter (Sophie Sink of “Stranger Things”) is summoned, a 17 year-old who rages at him and lashes out at the world, someone contemptuous of any hope he has of belatedly becoming a part of her life.
Aronofsky (“Mother!,” “Black Swan,” “Requiem for a Dream”) and his production designer masterfully take us into this myopic world of Charlie’s own creation, his life-style work-arounds, the mementoes mixed with clutter that’s reached the “debris” level of decor, and his working class poverty.
His lifeline to the world is his Acer laptop, the cheapest one Walmart sells.
Aronofsky’s not the first to tackle material with these physical limitations and these emotional confines. Truth be told, “The Whale” doesn’t escape the one-set-and-morbid stage-play-turned-film genre that “‘night, Mother” and “Whose Life is it Anyway?” pioneered.
The filmmaker leans into the source material’s inherent staginess, and lets some of the players overdo it in their long, perfectly-thought-out-and-delivered blurts of rage, contempt and pleading pity. That’s defensible because that’s how society has conditioned us to respond to this “Biggest Loser” world and its inhabitants, but it grates and colors how we judge the people around Charlie.
Is Liz his caregiver and helper, or merely his co-dependent? Is teenaged Ellie punishing the father who was never around, or has she just curdled into utter cruelty? Is Thomas the missionary a sincere, open-hearted Christian or just a kid projecting his fears and desires on someone who has it worse than him?
Ellie’s eager interactions with Charlie are mercenary and abusive. For Thomas, Sink transforms Ellie into a manic bitchy dream date who bowls over, intimidates, judges and threatens.
Even the great Samantha Morton, in a single scene as Charlie’s ex, can’t escape the stage-bound nature and stage-performance-pitched trap that “The Whale” demands of her. As in “She Said,” she shows up, electrifies us with her reality-based intensity and hidden pain, and makes her blocking problem exit.
But it is Fraser, who has emerged from Hollywood exile to remind us of the sweet-natured soulfulness he brought to his best work, who carries this film and makes “The Whale” a figure of pity and nobility. Of course he’s superb in scenes where Charlie makes light of his predicament and physical state. I can’t stress enough how his casting makes Charlie work as a character and “The Whale” play as a movie of enormous sympathy, sadness and hope.
Buried in a “fat suit,” his physical acting limited to the life of immobility Charlie has sentenced himself to, Fraser will break your heart playing the character’s pain and compassion. When anybody refers to “The Whale” as “transcendent,” it is Fraser that we’re talking about and Fraser whom we’re rooting for, a beloved Hollywood “nice guy” who takes his much-deserved shot at a comeback, and makes us thrilled that he got it.
Rating: R for language, some drug use and sexual content.
Cast: Brendan Fraser, Sadie Sink, Hong Chau, Ty Simpkins and Samantha Morton
Credits: Directed by Darren Aronofsky, scripted by Samuel D. Hunter, based on his play. An A24 release.
Running time: 1:57