We first see Charlie as his students see him: as a black box in a Zoom class. “The camera on my laptop still doesn’t work,” he chuckles. “You’re not missing much.” When he’s finally seen, he’s masturbating so furiously he nearly has a heart attack. Severely obese, his blood pressure is 238/134; he suffers from hypertension and congestive heart failure. “You’re wheezing,” notes his friend and nurse Liz (Hong Chau). “I always wheeze,” he replies.
As everyone on the planet must know by now, Charlie is played by Brendan Fraser in a physically transformative performance; he put on weight for the role, and used prosthetics and make-up to convincingly portray a man whose weight is so out of control, whose health is so bad, that he only has days to live, since he absolutely refuses to go to the hospital. Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale spends a week with him, from Monday to Friday, and observes him. He watches television. He teaches his remote classes. He reads and recites from a mysterious, elementary essay on Moby Dick that’s meaningful to him, though at first it’s not clear why. And most of all, he eats, sometimes for comfort, sometimes out of defiance – at his lowest moments, it’s something resembling taking control, paradoxically enough.
This week, however, there are changes. He’s visited, on multiple occasions, by Thomas (Ty Simpkins), a missionary for the “New Life Church” who wants to save Charlie’s soul before he shuffles off. And Charlie reconnects with his 17-year-old dirtbag daughter Ellie (Sadie Sinnk), cold and cruel, whom he hasn’t seen in years, and who has a rather monumental chip on her shoulder about that. He wants to square things away with her while he still can. “You don’t have to be angry at the world,” he assures her. “You can just be mad at me.”
As The Whale has worked the festival circuit, it’s been met with both praise and a fair amount of controversy, with its motivations of empathy and humanizing called into question by some of its critics (and by some critics of its critics). This is tricky stuff; “fat suit acting” has become rightfully scorn-worthy, and the occasional jokes at Charlie’s expense can sting in a theatrical setting, where audiences tend to nervously laugh at him, rather than with him (as those in the film are, mostly).
Ultimately, those issues bothered this overweight critics less than the more pressing issue: that the script is absolute drivel, a patently phony work that betrays its roots as a stage play at every turn. It’s not a question of “opening up”; Aronfsky, an extreme stylist, resists that urge, and in fact increases the claustrophobia of its single setting by shooting the film in a tightened, 4:3 frame. It’s that the script is so “theatrical,” in terms of structure, set-up, and payoff, and it becomes more transparently (and irritatingly) so the longer it goes. There are vast differences between film and theater in terms of how and when exposition and information is imparted, and the most maudlin plays do so at staggered intervals, in overwrought confessions and dramatic monologues. And that’s what The Whale does, over and over, with the added insult of Rob Simonsen’s syrupy, push-button, FEEL THIS NOW score, which is much too much at every turn – the worst kind of Joker-style hyper-tragic treacle.
But Hunter’s script is full of gaping flaws. The eventual byplay between the daughter and the missionary isn’t credible for a second – it’s silly enough to pretty much derail the picture – the dialogue in his reunion with his ex-wife (Samantha Morton, doing her best) is hammy and overcooked, and the ending is a machine of manipulation, every aspect carefully arranged throughout the script for maximum payoff at its conclusion, no matter how nonsensical those beats seemed when introduced.
The performances are, it must be said, noteworthy. Chau’s jumpy mix of impatience and warmth is affecting, and despite all the false beats of the scene that follows, the way Morton says “Charlie” the first time she sees him again is what screen acting is all about. And Fraser, as you’ve certainly heard, is marvelous; the way he weeps, “I need to know that I have done one thing right with my life” is undeniably powerful, and a late scene of binge-eating is like a punch in the face. The acclaim he’s received, and will continue to field, for his work here is understandable. And it’s a shame, because it’s a far better performance than the material deserves.
“The Whale” is in theaters Friday.