One of the most compelling stories this awards season has been Brendan Fraser’s big-screen comeback. Nary a day goes by without a story about a standing ovation he received at some film festival or a magazine interview where he revealed something personal and poignant. Fraser was a major star in the late 1990s fronting a franchise—The Mummy movies—that enjoyed a cultural resurrection the last few years, attracting new audiences and making him a figure of fan adoration online. Many people are rooting for him to succeed and that sentiment has crystalized in hopes that he wins the best actor Oscar next March for his performance in Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale. The performance is so linked to this buzz that the film’s marketing department is emphasizing Fraser’s award prospects instead of elements of the film, which make it fair to mention this in a review of the film’s merits.
Ostensibly a character study of a man desperate to connect before time slips away from him, The Whale becomes an exercise in watching a slow suicide. Charlie (Fraser), afflicted by obesity, has mostly isolated himself from the world. The first scene of the film hits the audience in quick succession: masturbation, a heart attack, and a young missionary (Ty Simpkins) trying to save Charlie’s soul. Audiences who love Aronofsky’s penchant for putting his characters through both physical duress and holy enlightenment will appreciate this bold opening.
As the story develops we discover that Charlie is grieving the loss of a dead boyfriend. This heartbreak is the reason for the isolation. Yet despite all that, he remains a positive soul, believing in the good of people whether they also show him grace, like his best friend and caretaker, Liz (Hong Chau), or are cruel to him, like his estranged teenage daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink), whose mother has kept her from him since their divorce.
Aronofsky is interested in how much people can push themselves physically and use their bodies, not only to accomplish physical feats but also to reach emotional nirvana, themes he’s explored before in 2008’s The Wrestler and 2010’s Black Swan. In the first film, a way-past-his-prime professional wrestler played by Mickey Rourke continues to push his tired and withering body to the extreme. In the latter, Natalie Portman’s ballerina struggles to be perfect as both the black and the white swans of Tchaikovsky’s famous Swan Lake ballet, pushing her body to its maximum limits in the process. Considering how similar these plots sound to The Whale’s, you’d think that makes him the perfect filmmaker to adapt Samuel Hunter’s play.
This is only partly true. Aronfosky tries to render the film’s thesis of treating the body as a shell and not the actual real person inside by using horror elements. The music becomes ominous as Charlie eats and bathes, and more so as he moves, as he cries, even as he laughs. It’s all horror. When all of this is shown repeatedly, the film loses empathy for its central character. Fraser’s trying to give Charlie grace, yet most of what we see is the physical difficulty he’s afflicted with.
Under heavy prosthetics, Fraser is nevertheless able to utilize his face to convey Charlie’s sunny side. That note of hope shines through bright and clear. Charlie believes everyone is good and has potential, positive notes that Fraser delivers with acute feeling. Beyond that, the performance is hampered by all the physical exertion he has to communicate. It becomes more about calling attention to the difficulties he has breathing and talking instead of showing us his emotional state. Unfortunately for a film claiming that the body is nothing but a container for the soul, the performance ends up being more surface, less vital spirit.
Fraser has potent chemistry with Chau. She plays Liz, his late boyfriend’s sister and seemingly the only friend he has in the world. As all good friends do, she wholeheartedly supports him, but also teases and cajoles, not afraid to tell it to him straight. Chau acts as the audience surrogate and we see Charlie through her eyes. Whatever empathy is lacking elsewhere in the film, Chau compensates for and more. Hers is a clear-eyed performance, tough as well as sensitive. The way Chau holds a phrase as she recalls Liz’s brother fills in the story gaps and tells us so much about all the characters, not just hers. She’s so good you can’t take your eyes off her, no matter who else is in the frame.
On the other side of that, Sink only plays the obvious elements of being a teenager. Other characters speak about Ellie’s abrasive personality, her mother (the ever-reliable Samantha Morton, elevating her brief screen time) even calls her “evil.” Sink seems to have based her performance on that, without trying to find what’s really driving this behavior.
The Whale has a few other problems too. Not escaping the theatrical confines of its source material is not one of them, since claustrophobia fits how this character feels inside. But Aronofsky and company aren’t able to give the audience a reason to root for Charlie besides his surface-level positivity. Even the many mentions of the novel Moby Dick do not hint at any intellectual link to the film’s title but are rather used as a trite excuse for a relationship the script has failed to render believably. Charlie’s queerness is not explored beyond a few easy jokes at desire and porn. The Whale’s raison d’etre seems to be about being the engine driving Fraser’s long-awaited resurgence. Beyond that there’s nothing much to see.