In his new drama The Whale, Darren Aronofsky introduces his protagonist Charlie as a black square on a Zoom call. Charlie is an English teacher for an online college course, and one student accidentally posts a public question to the group chat, asking why their professor hasn’t had his camera fixed yet. The next sequence answers why: We are in Charlie’s apartment, and as the camera approaches his couch from behind, we see immediately the hefty, 600-pound bulk of him oozing over the cushions. The next thing we notice is his bloated form shaking rhythmically, as Charlie masturbates furiously to gay online porn.
Morbid obesity and shame. Those are the elements Aronofsky chooses to associate with your first good look at Brendan Fraser in this adaptation of Samuel D. Hunter’s award-winning 2012 play (the screenplay was penned by the playwright himself), and he never really lets you forget it. Where a more conventional director would have looked for opportunities to open up this material visually, Aronofsky sets all of the action squarely in Charlie’s small apartment. And as if that weren’t claustrophobic enough, he and go-to cinematographer Matthew Libatique choose to film the whole thing in a boxy 4:3 ratio, made to fit antique square TV screens.
That means the whole frame will be dominated by Fraser as he rolls like a log just getting up from the couch or lumbers around in his walker. The Whale feels like a reset for Aronofsky, a turn to intimate drama after the Grand Guignol antics of Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan and mother!, where critics generally agreed that he had fallen off the deep end. (I personally watched mother! with perverse glee, the kind you’d have encouraging someone drunk to make a fool of themselves.)
But Aronofsky turns everything into a spectacle, whether it’s Natalie Portman scratching at a rash or Russell Crowe piloting his ark in Noah. In The Whale, the central act is Fraser as a fat man. Every sweat stain, every rattling wheeze is lovingly documented. There’s even a shot of Charlie rubbing himself with a loofah in the shower, gravity turning his body into a literal mountain of flesh. Yes, Charlie’s problems—whether it’s his antagonistic relationship with the teenaged daughter (Stranger Things’ Sadie Sink) he abandoned years before or a key dropped on the floor—emanate from his weight. But a better film would have made you forget Charlie’s grotesquerie and allowed you to empathize with him as a person dealing with loss and grief. Instead, watching The Whale, I mostly stayed away from my popcorn and thought, Thank God that isn’t me.
Charlie is meant to be a recluse, but he certainly isn’t a hermit; in fact, during the week we spend in his life, he keeps getting knocks on his door. The first time we meet Charlie, his masturbation causes him so much exertion that he almost has a heart attack, and only a fresh-faced missionary named Thomas (Ty Simpkins, last seen as a child actor in Insidious and the first Jurassic World) who happened to come knocking at Charlie’s unlocked door saves his life.
To get his heart rate down, Charlie has Thomas read him a high-school essay (the author will be revealed in the final act), a sort of lullaby against the ever-present prospect of death from congestive heart failure. (It’s a portent aided by Rob Simonsen’s ominous score.) The essay-reading is a touch that’s meant to be a subtle character hallmark when viewed onstage but gains unintended schmaltz when paired with Aronofsky’s excessive impulses. There’s also a visiting bird that Charlie feeds with crumbs outside his window; I believe it’s called an Obvious Metaphor.
Visiting at a most opportune time convinces Thomas that saving Charlie’s soul is his great purpose. That puts him at odds with Charlie’s friend and de facto caretaker Liz (the wonderful Hong Chao, knocking another supporting turn out of the park after The Menu), a nurse who happens to be the sister of Charlie’s deceased lover. That departed brother is the reason why Liz has a wary relationship with the church Thomas is representing.
And then of course, there’s Ellie, played by the aforementioned Sink. Where Liz is prickly, Ellie is rage-filled. She’s been suspended from her high school for bullying, and so she decides to visit her long-absent father and torture him into writing some essays that will keep her from failing English. She soon starts batting Thomas around like a cat playing with a mouse, and the conversations between the two teenagers—with a long one facilitated by Ellie knocking Charlie out with two Ambien in his hero sandwich—feels like they belong in another movie altogether.
Thomas is the biggest tell that the material was first a play: Right from his entrance, he is a plot contrivance dressed in a Jehovah’s Witness suit, a deus ex machina disguised as a missionary. Despite Thomas’ protestations of serving a greater purpose, you never really quite buy the motivation: Thomas glides in and out of Charlie’s apartment so often I began to wonder what the hell he was doing there.
Thomas is also the film’s vessel for debates on sexuality and religious intolerance. But Hunter’s determination to expose backstory through dialogue and Aronofsky’s dogged insistence on never leaving Charlie’s apartment mean that these discussions never get any real-world heft, just floating by untethered from any visible lived experience.
That leaves the actors doing the heavy lifting, and they mostly deliver. The obvious MVPs are Chau (who imbues her Liz with a bracing mixture of tenderness and exasperation) and Fraser. The huzzahs Fraser has been reaping are mostly deserved, even though his performance towards the climax feels a tad overwrought. It’s not that he inhabits his character so much as he tries to inject Charlie with the humor, grace and nimble playfulness that has defined his persona in the blockbusters and less-worthy comedies that populate his filmography. With Charlie, he finally gets to deploy his charm in a role that’s, well, substantial.
The fact that I’m acutely aware of just having made a pun tells me how Fraser and Aronofsky are working at cross-purposes. Fraser is trying his damnedest to make you see beyond Charlie’s infirmity; Aronofsky is dead-set on reminding you of it. Ultimately, even the tears The Whale will manage to wring out of you are tainted by the horror you feel at Charlie’s predicament. The film’s lofty aspirations are crushed under the weight of Aronofsky’s refusal to see Charlie as anything other than someone to be pitied.
The Whale opens in Philippine cinemas on Wednesday, February 22.
Photos from IMDB