Film, Film Review

REVIEW: The Whale (2022) dir. Darren Aronofsky

Brendan Fraser is revelatory, but his comeback vehicle is repellent


Can a movie be stripped for parts?

This is the question I find myself asking as I consider The Whale. The Whale, of course, marks the “official” comeback Brendan Fraser, the beloved ‘90s movie star who recently came forward with the (genuinely horrible) events that led to his abrupt retreat from the spotlight. Sight unseen, it’s difficult not to want The Whale to succeed, and for Fraser– who seems, by all accounts, to be just as decent and likable as the films which brought him stardom– to complete his comeback arc and return to the Hollywood A-list.

To that end, I do have some good news: Fraser is, indeed, revelatory in The Whale, and his performance is worthy of the metanarrative that surrounds it. I just wish the same could be said for the film in which it is contained, which I find damn near impossible to recommend on any level outside of its performances.

Those coming to The Whale for its feel-good comeback narrative will likely be taken aback by its opening scene, in which Fraser, encased in an enormous fat suit and nested in a shabby apartment, suffers a near-fatal heart attack while furiously masturbating to gay porn on a laptop. Fraser’s Charlie is a broken man, an English professor (he teaches remotely, his camera perpetually “broken”) who has been driven by personal tragedy into a spiral of depression and binge-eating, leaving him six hundred pounds heavier and nearly immobile. His sole lifeline– figuratively and literally– is Liz (the always welcome Hong Chau), a professional nurse who takes care of him in her off hours. When Liz informs him that, based on his vitals, he’ll likely be dead by the weekend barring a change in lifestyle he has no inclination to make, Charlie reaches out to his estranged and rebellious teenage daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink), who clearly loathes him and only stops by on the promise that he’ll write her homework for her. Then there’s Thomas (Ty Simpkins), a young missionary for the evangelical New Life Church, who steps into what seem to be the last days of Charlie’s life and sees an opportunity for some soul-saving. But is Charlie’s soul the issue, or is something else keeping him on the couch.

I’ll say it again, because it’s the reason most people are likely to see The Whale: Brendan Fraser delivers an honest-to-god transformative performance in this film, for reasons that go beyond the mountains of prosthetics (though we’re by no means done with those). You can see in his eyes, and hear in his chuckle, the lovable doofus of Encino Man or the self-effacing swashbuckler of the Mummy films, but there’s something else there– a haunted, soulful melancholy which, if it was there before, was the faintest of undertones. It feels lived-in, because he has lived in it. I don’t know if Fraser has spent his time away from the camera honing his craft (I suspect not), but it is clear that he has harnessed all the feelings he accumulated during his years in the wilderness and focused them into something positive. The so-called “Brenaissance” has become something of a meme in the leadup to the actor’s comeback, and I’m pleased to say that his performance here backs it up: he’s a good actor, and I truly do hope he sticks around this time.

And yet. Isn’t there something just a little bit unseemly in the way that the film that ushers in Fraser’s return invites us to gawk at its beloved star? Again, most of what we see on camera is the result of elaborate makeup effects, but there’s still something undeniably tabloid-exploitative in the way the film uses our familiarity with Fraser’s one-time matinee idol status to draw us in, to make us say “Look what happened to him” in spite of ourselves. The camera lingers on his huffing, lumbering frame and his cascading folds, and his girth is emphasized by the confines of the frame’s boxy academy ratio, so narrow it can barely contain him. The fact that Fraser is front and center on camera for nearly the entire duration reinforces this notion; whatever the intention, the effect is one of “pay the nickel, see the freak.

Nominally, of course, this is a film about empathy, but what empathy we do feel is largely thanks to Fraser’s performance (as well as Chau’s, an impossibly good actor who deserves better than thankless supporting roles). The screenplay, adapted by Samuel D. Hunter from his own stage play, is so concerned with rat-a-tat dialogue and clip-ready soliloquies that it only skims the surface of the emotions underneath (“It’s overwritten,” Ellie says at one point about a reading assignment, apparently without a shred of self-awareness). We know what these characters feel because they tell us so. “People are amazing!” Charlie beams in what has become the film’s tagline, but it’s never clear why he believes that, or if the film agrees; apart from Liz, all the people we see him interact with fall on a spectrum of unthinking cruelty to active malice. The Whale is a story that could be played either as kitchen-sink melodrama or cutting, jet-black satire, and it’s often not clear which it’s trying to be.

Is The Whale ableist? I don’t feel qualified to make a call on that one way or the other, though there has been passionate debate on both sides of the argument. But I am comfortable saying that it rockets past Blonde as one of the most purely unpleasant films of the year. Like Charlie, it wedges itself into a rut of self-pity and flopsweat so enervating that it’s difficult to care how things turn out. It’s a stifling film, the sort of stage-to-film adaptation so literal to be inert, and the sort of treacly story that teeters over the line between “uplifting sentiment” and “misery porn” (I’m reminded of another dubiously sincere entertainment released around the holidays: “Tonight thank god it’s them instead of you!”). I’m happy for Brendan Fraser, and I’m thrilled that he’s emerged from his exile a stronger actor than ever. I just wish his return came in the form of a film I could recommend anyone go see.

The Whale
dir. Darren Aronofsky
117 min.

Opens Wednesday, 12/21 @ Coolidge Corner Theatre, Somerville Theatre, and elsewhere

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