Whale, The (United States, 2022)

December 06, 2022
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Whale, The Poster

At first glance, it appears that The Whale might represent a “return to form” for Darren Aronofsky, who has been taking a walk on the strange side with his previous two features, Noah and mother! Alas, despite some interesting performances, the movie suffers from an underwritten screenplay (credited to Samuel D. Hunter, based on his play) that reeks of artifice. The character interactions are often overly theatrical and the central figure turns out to be the second-least interesting individual in this five-person story. At times, The Whale recalls Aronofsky’s 2008 movie, The Wrestler, but the comparisons illustrate the strengths of the latter and the weaknesses of the former.

Much has been written about the performance of Brendan Fraser, who has been largely absent from the big screen for the past decade (although he has been active in TV so it’s a misnomer to call this a “comeback.”) Rest assured, Fraser hasn’t changed that much since he shot to stardom in The Mummy and its sequels. Although he put on some weight to play the morbidly obese Charlie in The Whale, he didn’t put on 500 pounds. More than a little credit for Charlie’s appearance is owed to the makeup team, although their budgetary limitations are evident in scenes when Charlie stands up and the use of a fat suit is apparent. Fraser’s performance is strong and credible but the rush to overpraise him is at least in part because of the Oscar bait lure of the “attractive person playing someone ugly” that always seems to nab a nomination. While I admire Fraser’s work here, he’s at least matched by Hong Chau as Charlie’s acerbic nurse Liz, and perhaps even by Sadie Sink as his estranged daughter, Ellie.

Based on a play where no attempt has been made to open things up, The Whale transpires entirely within Charlie’s dingy, unkempt house. We hear his voice – strong and assured – before we catch our first glimpse of him, masturbating to gay porn. He’s suffering from congestive heart failure and is in some distress when a clueless missionary, Thomas (Ty Simpkins), wanders through the front door, looking to save his soul. By the time Liz arrives, Charlie has recovered somewhat from his attack; she begs him to go to the hospital but he refuses. She informs him that without medical help, he’ll be dead within a week. This compels Charlie to attempt a reconciliation with Ellie, the daughter he hasn’t seen in nine years. She has no interest in re-starting a relationship with the father who dumped her so he could be with his gay lover. Her mother, Mary (Samantha Morton), is more forgiving but only to a point. The storyline could be succinctly encapsulated as “morbidly obese man tries to put his messy life in order before he drops dead.” The whale (as in the one from Moby Dick) is occasionally referenced (Charlie is a creative writing teacher and a prized student essay is an analysis of the Herman Melville novel) and I’m sure there’s something allegorical about it, but I’ll be damned if I know what it is.

There’s some life and energy in the interactions between Charlie and Liz and Charlie and Ellie. The same cannot be said of any scene featuring Thomas. That has nothing to do with Ty Simpkins’ performance, which is fine, but with the character, whose introduction is forced and whose purpose is weak. Little about Thomas is believable and attempts to shroud him in mystery simply make it all the more disappointing when the truth is revealed.

There’s less to Charlie than one might expect from a two-hour character study. On the surface, he’s frustrating. Just below it, he’s a monster who deserves what he’s getting (in part because he has done this to himself). He recognizes that he needs redemption but that doesn’t diminish his selfishness. Those characteristics should make for a fascinating movie but the writing isn’t good enough.

Tonally, The Whale is all over the place. Although the majority of it is dour, as befits a film focused on a miserable, dying human being, there are some odd departures. One strays deeply into the gross-out category with a scene of excess binging that is so over-the-top that it’s almost unwatchable. I can sit through slasher film displays of blood and viscera without cringing but this sequence caused me to briefly turn from the screen. Then there’s the ending, which is filmed in such a way that it verges on parody. I’m pretty sure Aronofsky didn’t intend for this to be satirical but the grandiosity with which it is presented skews close to how Monty Python might have done it.

For Aronofsky, it’s fair to say that The Whale is a step toward normalcy from the weirdness of mother! Although by no means mainstream, The Whale is less obtuse, although it’s a matter of taste whether that’s a good thing. Fraser’s performance will get some justifiable notice but that’s in part because of its showy nature. (Take away all the makeup and see whether what’s left is Oscar-worthy. It’s an open question.) The cynic in me believes this movie may have been constructed primarily for end-of-the-year plaudits because there doesn’t seem to be another compelling reason for it to exist.

Whale, The (United States, 2022)

Director: Darren Aronofsky
Cast: Brendan Fraser, Sadie Sink, Ty Simpkins, Hong Chau, Samantha Morton
Home Release Date: 2023-03-14
Screenplay: Samuel D. Hunter, based on his play
Cinematography: Matthew Libatique
Music: Rob Sinonsen
U.S. Distributor: A24
Run Time: 1:59
U.S. Home Release Date: 2023-03-14
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Content)
Genre: Drama
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1