One of the main narratives this awards season has been around the comeback kids. Almost forty years after his screen debut, Ke Huy Quan has charmed his way into people’s hearts with his enthusiastic fanboy frolics about Hollywood whilst hoovering up most every trophy going for his supporting turn in Everything Everywhere All At Once. Amongst the lead roles, the same narrative is being applied to Brendan Fraser. A one-time leading man, possessed of good looks and easygoing charisma, he was let down by a system that would normally have milked his charm for all it was worth. And now, here he is, an honoured golden boy who’s seized his second chance with both hands. Lest this sound like he doesn’t deserve his plaudits for Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale, that isn’t the case at all. He’s very good; the film is less so.
Aronofsky is among the most vulgarly divisive of Hollywood auteurs. His works defy fence-sitting; when you emerge from one of his films, you will have a strong opinion. Is Requiem For A Dream an inventive nightmare or a forceful scold? Is Black Swan a tragic tale of self-destruction, or a Powell and Pressburger fever dream? These swoony punishments display enough visual pizazz to distract from the dark lessons at their core, but The Whale doesn’t offer Aronofsky enough opportunities to throw his camera about with reckless abandon. The whole thing takes place almost entirely in one setting, namely a dimly-lit apartment inhabited by Fraser’s Charlie. The setting is restricted because Charlie is housebound by his morbid obesity. This particular gambit might help bring Samuel D. Hunter’s words to life on the stage, but in adapting his work for the screen, the writer has fallen at the first hurdle of stage-to-screen adaptations; it simply isn’t cinematic enough. Granted, talented directors can (and do) make single settings and the simple act of conversation need to be seen on a screen, but Aronofsky and his regular DoP Matthew Libatique don’t make their job easy, keeping things brown and dank. Even the sky outside Charlie’s windows only threatens rain. It’s hard to get excited about long single takes that happen within one room, with no reason other than to reassure you that the film’s budget could afford a Steadicam. Visually at least, this is Aronofsky’s least interesting work to date.
What can possibly happen within the walls of this dingy apartment? Charlie teaches English online, but his physical condition is becoming a grave concern to his main regular visitor, his friend and nurse Liz, played with no-nonsense care by the wonderful Hong Chau (Whatever we might think about The Whale, it’s still more nourishing material than Chau was given in The Menu). Liz cares about Charlie more than the film does. Accusations of The Whale being offensive to those of greater body mass are a matter of personal taste, but there is an exploitative air to the way Charlie is framed. His movements are slow and exhausting, and the camera is sure to place itself for a towering angle or a manipulative closeup on Charlie’s sad eyes while the score rises to signal the monumental feat of this man standing up. A more restrained approach to this material would have worked better in service of Charlie’s humanity considering the plot beats that follow. Besides his poor physical health, Charlie’s life is defined by the knocks that come to the door (Again, this is a stage play, barely altered for the new medium). There’s the Christian missionary kid (Ty Simpkins) who seems as soul-sickened as Charlie or anyone else. There’s the unseen pizza delivery guy who feels like he could be Charlie’s best pal. Most of all, there’s Ellie (Sadie Sink), Charlie’s estranged daughter, whose response to her father’s attempts to care are uncaring in kind. All the performers are invested, but they have to be. When Aronofsky is hemmed in by his main character and single setting, it’s up to his actors to overstate the emotion in his stead. It’s a pity that Aronofsky feels so constrained, because we’ve seen him temper his instincts enough to earn comparison to the more humanistic likes of the Dardennes, and The Wrestler arguably remains his best work. The gentle heart with which he infused that film is replaced by overegged moments of emotion to play at awards ceremonies while the cast hope for their name to be called. The Whale isn’t boring or poorly made, but it rarely feels sincere. The material is pure Aronofsky, thematically speaking; this fits quite well in his oeuvre, in its explorations of religiosity, and professional & emotional impotence. Yet, when you realize that Charlie is teaching his online class Moby Dick, the title feels more like a joke than a wry nod.
This is particularly tough on Fraser, whose sincerity cannot be doubted. Those sad eyes that shine from beneath his fat suit have seen a lot of anguish, and the praise heaped on him for this role is not unmerited. He is the heart of The Whale, bringing Charlie to life with a sense of humour and a giggle that many other actors might have thought beneath them in this role. But it’s in service of a film that needs a filmmaker of greater restraint. I grin at thee, thou grinning Whale, but I shall not weep for thee.