Acclaimed director Darren Aronofsky made several interesting choices when he adapted “The Whale” from the stage to the screen. The biggest of those was choosing veteran actor Brendan Fraser to play the 600 pound protagonist.
Much like he did with Mickey Rourke in “The Wrestler,” Aronofsky is interested in honing talent that’s not been in the mainstream awards conversation (or any conversation) for some time.
“The Whale” is deeply empathetic and Aronofsky’s character study is carried by Fraser’s performance as Charlie, a gay and morbidly obese English teacher who keeps his camera off as he instructs his students via some version of zoom.
Charlie’s closest relationships is with his longtime friend and nurse, Liz (Hong Chau). Liz checks on him and delivers supplies whenever Charlie is in a bind. Rising star Hong Chau is brilliant in her few moments in the film, adding to a breakout year where she shined in “The Menu” as well.
We learn that Charlie left his wife and daughter for a former student, thus ripping apart his family as he came out of the closet. Charlie’s time with his lover was especially freeing and filled with many great memories. Unfortunately, the lover’s religious upbringing was a psychological burden that couldn’t be shook and he succumbed to his feelings of homosexual guilt and committed suicide.
This event, paired with the guilt over leaving his daughter, triggers Charlie’s depression and overeating while he tries to save up as much money as he can to help his daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink).
Charlie knows that his frequent chest pains means that he has very little time left and he desperately wants to reconnect with Ellie. Charlie covets Ellie’s middle school essay on Melville’s “Moby Dick,” and that essay helps him during moments of cardiac strain.
Charlie’s endless consumption is his chosen way of committing suicide, which is confounding as he seems genuinely remorseful about the time he’s missed from his daughter. Charlie is giving a lump sum payment to Ellie and views this as his grand gesture of contrition.
Charlie won’t take care of himself because any medical cost would take away from the money he plans to leave Ellie. However, the role he could play as her father is much more valuable than giving an adolescent money she is ill-prepared to govern. Complicating this matter is the reality that Ellie is a horrible person with ill-intent with almost every action.
She’s angry at the world and certainly her father who she insults repeatedly. She yells that she wants him to die and that she would be better off and only agrees to spend time with him for a hefty price. She even takes pictures of him and posts them online for social media insults.
She’s detestable there’s no real depth, the only wrinkle comes when her plans to exploit someone’s painful history backfires and actually helps a young man reconnect with his family. This is the character of Thomas (Ty Simpkins), the determined young missionary who tries to sell Charlie on salvation and continues to visit him during his final days.
The performances from Fraser and Chau overcome the shortcoming of the bare bones story, and Fraser disappears into the role of Charlie. The movie is at its best when featuring Charlie and Liz in on the screen. Liz is the closest friend of Charlie’s, and they have a shared pain due to the loss of Liz’s brother (Charlie’s lover). She’s also enabling his self-destructive impulses and is devastated that Charlie is accepting a doomed fate rather than letting her take him to a costly hospital. Chau is heartbreaking in this performances as Liz balances Charlie’s wishes with what is best for him.
The setting of Charlie’s home as the film’s sole location makes it challenging for Aronofsky, who is usually visually innovative in all his films. The final moments of the film are the redemptive moment we’ve been waiting for with Ellie reading her essay to Charlie as he fights to rise to his feet.
Ellie had previously challenged him to get to his feet and he failed miserably, so this is quite the striking moment. When Aronofsky implements the fantasy element of Charlie floating into the air, it feels like his most authentic self shining through this play adaptation.
It’s wonderful to see Fraser shine despite a screenplay that makes some poor choices with lacking characters and questionable motivations driving their actions.
Letter Grade: B