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Charlie is 600 lbs. This is the first thing you notice about him; this is the first thing you are meant to notice about him. He’s always been a big guy, he says, but he “let it get out of control.” On the Zooms in which Charlie teaches online English courses — he’s a professor — his voice is always emanating from a solid square of black, the video permanently disabled, the word “Instructor” the only visual his students associate with him.
But when we first see Charlie in The Whale, director Darren Aronofsky’s adaptation of Samuel D. Hunter’s award-winning 2012 play, we get to observe all of him: a bulk of a man, his body bloated and swollen, sitting deep in the corner of his couch, masturbating furiously to online porn. Severe chest pains interrupt his endeavor. Only the arrival of a random stranger, who happens to find the apartment door unlocked, saves his life.
That stranger, Thomas (Ty Simpkins), is a fresh-faced, twentysomething missionary from a local church, the kind that preaches about end times. He believes God brought him to this flat for a reason. (If you consider plot convenience to be a form of divine providence, then yeah, sure.) Soon, Charlie’s best friend, a nurse named Liz (the great Hong Chau) arrives to help out. She’s wary of the kid, since she has a prior connection to the church. So, for that matter, does the person sweating and wheezing on the sofa, and who requires a walker to get around. Later, Charlie’s daughter, Ellie (Stranger Things’ Sadie Sink), a wayward teen, shows up to berate her dad. So does his ex-wife, Mary (Samantha Morton). But these characters are merely satellites. They are there to orbit around the figure at the center of it all. Or maybe, to put it more accurately, the star playing this centrifugal force.
Even if you don’t follow the Oscar-predictions beat like the showbiz soap opera that it is, you’ve probably heard about how incredible Brendan Fraser is in the role of Charlie. The hype around the performance is earned. It’s not an exaggeration to say it’s some of the best, if not the best work of his career, and the kind of screen turn that taps into your long relationship with an actor while revealing aspects of their talent you never knew they had. You may also know that he’s been through some rough times, and the emotional reaction to his return to premiere screenings, red carpets, etc., on this level has been sincere. Fraser tends to blow off talk of a comeback, but that’s what The Whale is gifting him with. And there are so many moments where you watch the actor in this part and you want to get behind this lumbering, melodramatic, misbegotten mishegas of a character study just for him.
Wearing a massive fatsuit and often hamstrung with plot points and dialogue that have not weathered the translation from stage to screen well (despite Hunter having adapted his own work), Fraser nonetheless manages to communicate the humanity in this character even when the film itself does everything it can to undermine his efforts. It’s the way that he uses his eyes and his facial expressions to communicate sorrow, fear, self-loathing, self-pity, hope, desperation, spiritual longing, a fake sense of joviality and a genuine sense of joy. The manner in which his eyes dart around when he’s unable to reach a key that’s fallen on the floor. The burst of giggling accompanying the discovery that his cynical daughter has turned her misanthropy into a haiku. Three struggles are happening simultaneously when you watch The Whale: Charlie’s attempt to halfheartedly overcome his physical state before his heart fully gives out; Fraser fighting to let this man’s bruised soul shine through; and you suppressing your own rage at the film enough to appreciate the fruits of his labor.
Because there is a major sensibility problem going on here, in which the way the actor and the film itself view Charlie sometimes seem to be at complete odds with each other. You could never accuse Darren Aronofsky of being an unimaginative or risk-averse filmmaker; he’s one of those auteurs whose failures are often more interesting than many other directors’ successes. This is an artist who isn’t afraid to swing for the fences and suffer the occasional strike-out — say what you will about Mother!, it took guts (and some lower, swinging appendages) to make something that conceptually daring. But even as early as Requiem for a Dream (2000), there was the sense that any present sensitivity could be drowned out by a style that prioritized sturm und drang. The need to dazzle, or pummel you into submission, sometimes steamrolled over the proceedings. He’d rely on a strong performance to carry viewers through all that feel-bad flash.
Fraser is a dream collaborator in that respect, and yet The Whale seems hellbent on making you view Charlie as a grotesque. There’s something monstrous about the way it keeps framing him, how it seems to almost fetishize every roll of his flesh and put the sound of his greasy chomping on fried chicken so high in the sound mix. What this man is experiencing — a horrible sense of shame that’s metastasized into self-destruction — is not pretty. But the movie seems to revel a little too enthusiastically in its own ugliness. That doom-laden score by Rob Simonsen keeps rubbing the despair even deeper into your face. For every sunbeam of humanity Fraser lets shine through this soul, the film summons a half-dozen dark clouds to try and dampen it.
It makes you think the sheer feat of letting a viewer feel something — anything — for this person besides pity or, even worse, superiority, is a responsibility that seems to fall squarely on the prosthetics-laden shoulders of its lead. (To be fair, he’s aided by Chau, once again turning a supporting role into something substantial and layered, yet not eclipsing.) Fraser deserves whatever awards and accolades he gets for playing this broken man who finally gets his moment of redemption — never mind that said moment borrows heavily from Aronofsky’s climax/coda combo in Requiem. But he also deserves a better movie to be doing such graceful work in. The Whale knows it has a dynamo at its core, yet still keeps trying to prove to you it’s a substantial, significant statement. It can’t stop itself from being crushed under its own symbolic and sensationalist weight.