Darren Aronofsky’s new film “The Whale” is a hollow exercise in misery and obesity. It surely draws our attention with the miserable life condition of its pitiful hero right from the beginning, but the movie simply dwells inside his small, isolated world while going all the way for being gross and grotesque without much human quality to observe, and that is a shame considering the committed efforts from its small but solid cast.
Brendan Fraser, who has been rather inactive during last several years but then embarked on his comeback via a small but impressive supporting turn in Steven Soderbergh’s “No Sudden Move” (2021), plays Charlie, an extremely obese recluse who has earned his meager living via online college class. Since one certain personal tragedy to be revealed along the story, he has gained lots of weight as struggling with his guilt and grief, and we come to gather that this is sort of punishing himself before he eventually dies due to his serious medical condition at present.
At the beginning, Charlie has a mild heart attack while engaged in a rather seedy private activity, but, fortunately, he is helped by an unexpected stranger coming into his small residence. That figures in question is a young man named Thomas (Ty Simpkins), and, though he does appreciate Thomas’ little act of compassion, Charlie is not so amused when it later turns out that Thomas is interested in how to save Charlie in a spiritual way as your average Christian missionary, and neither is Liz (Hong Chau), a weary nurse who has been quite devoted to Charlie as his only friend.
Not long after this happening, there comes another unexpected figure into Charlie’s life, and that is Charlie’s estranged adolescent daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink). When she was a little girl, Charlie left her and his wife just because of a new love, and Ellie has been quite angry and spiteful about this. As they talk a bit about her current high school problems, Ellie shows more of her anger and resentment toward her father, but Charlie desperately tries to have some reconciliation between them, while trying to look at his daughter’s better sides.
He becomes all the more desperate after coming to learn that death comes quite nearer to him than before due to his rapidly deteriorating medical condition. Considering his current blood pressure and heart condition, he may die right now, and Liz really wants him to go to hospital as soon as possible, but he adamantly refuses to do that as if his sheer obesity were his cross to carry to the end of his life.
Mostly hovering around its hero in his small residence, the movie does not hesitate to show more of how grotesque he usually looks. Whenever he manages to move around in his residence, we cannot help but notice his enormously fat body, and the screenplay by Samuel D. Hunter, which is based on his play of the same name, often makes a blatant connection between its hero and that famous American classic novel by Herman Melville. For example, Charlie has particularly been fixated on a certain old essay on that novel which was written some time ago, and reading that old assay somehow brings some hope and comfort to him even though he is quite familiar with every word on it.
Sadly, Hunter’s screenplay fails to develop its hero into an engaging human figure to observe. As we get to know a bit more about Charlie’s past along the story, the mood becomes more melodramatic later in the story as expected, but he and his grim human condition remain to be as symbolic as, yes, that big white whale in Melville’s novel, and Hunter’s screenplay also fails to bring more flesh and blood to a few supporting characters surrounding them.
This failure is often exasperating because the movie contains the commendable acting efforts from Fraser, who looks quite convincing in the Oscar-nominated make-up throughout the film. He is poignant at times as willingly throwing himself into his utterly demanding role, and he surely deserves some praises for bringing some sincerity and gravitas to a number of key scenes in the film. Many of these scenes are manipulative in their outright attempt to pull our heartstrings, but Fraser’s diligent performance, which recently received an Oscar nomination, grounds them in realism at least.
In case of several performers surrounding Fraser, they mostly acquit themselves well despite being frequently limited by thin characterization. While Hong Chau, a wonderful actress who belatedly received an Oscar nomination for this film, is commendable for elevating her thankless role to some degree, Samantha Morton manages to convey to us her small but crucial supporting character’s complex feelings toward Fraser’s character, and Sadie Sink and Ty Simpkins are unfortunately wasted in contrast as being more or less than mere plot elements.
On the whole, “The Whale” is a big misfire in Aronofsky’s fascinating filmmaking career, which has often impressed us with several striking drama films of extreme human conditions. Most of these works, which range from “Requiem for a Dream” (2000) to “Black Swan” (2010), are not so pleasant to say the least, but they are also quite powerful with some insight on human nature, and that is what “The Whale” boldly attempts but miserably fails to do. To be frank with you, all I can see from the film is the really decent acting efforts which surely deserve something a lot better than this, and, folks, that is not a good sign at all.
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