'The Whale' review: Fraser's transformative comeback can't salvage misguided drama
Courtesy of A24
Much has been made in the press and festival circuit about Brandan Fraser’s comeback role in Darren Aronofsky’s “The Whale.” Fraser, who never completely disappeared from the spotlight, showing up in a variety of smaller roles, though nowhere near his level of fame when anchoring the blockbuster “Mummy” franchise, is completely unrecognizable playing a 600-pound man staring down the realization his life is nearing an end. It’s one of those transformative, career revivals actors dream about (last season it was Simon Rex in “Red Rocket”) and Fraser brings his all, but “The Whale” never bottles the emotions in a thoughtful package, instead paving way for uncomfortable subtext around homophobia and fat shaming. Not saying that’s what Aronofsky intended, but it’s hard to ignore.
What really drags down “The Whale,” which is based on the play by Samuel D Hunter of whom adapted it for the feature, is the secondary characters and the forced emotional catharsis that’s manipulative rather than earned. Its challenging subject material proves rather daunting for Aronofsky who loves poking and prodding audiences (see “Black Swan” and “mother!”), but can occasionally allow his ego to guide his motives. And in “The Whale,” it’s almost painfully obvious.
Nevertheless, Fraser plays Charlie, an online college literary professor who’s towering obesity prevents him from leaving his minuscule two bedroom apartment (the entire movie, like the play, takes place in this setting). His condition has taken a turn for the worst and congestive heart failure is imminent. Despite pleas from a caring, home nurse (Hong Chau - terrific) that he should seek medical attention, Charlie has accepted the inevitable and pivots the last days of his life towards making amends with his teenage daughter (Sadie Sink of “Stranger Things” fame) who, thanks to a complicated childhood, wants nothing to do with him.
Charlie is eager to make peace with his daughter even though he abandoned her when she was a child. When they finally come face-to-face in one of the movie's more harrowing sequences, we learn why Charlie let his weight get out of control and the insistent need to always be gorging himself. It’s a solid arch that’s sold by Fraser’s sensational performance, but Sink’s character, and the way she approaches it, creates more havoc than intrigue. She’s snarky, unwelcoming and makes horrendous comments about Charlie’s weight and size. Instead of giving her something to chew on, the script regulates her to a whiny teenager without any silver of relatability.
As you watch the film, it becomes evident why “The Whale” derives itself from the book “Moby Dick,” although, due to Charlie’s enormous physique, the meaning lends itself another way. On one hand, “The Whale” is worth a watch for the sole purpose of Fraser’s performance, which exhibits a wide range of emotions that’s even more impressive when you consider he’s doing the lifting under heavy makeup and prosthetics while staying grounded to either a wheelchair or couch.
But on the other hand, the film doesn’t leave you with much except for a reactionary impulse that’s now become accustomed to Aronofsky’s body of work. For as good and convincing as Fraser is, and I’m genuinely thrilled for his “comeback,” “The Whale” stumbles in confronting its main characters' morality and his search for something greater than himself.
THE WHALE is now playing in select theaters and opens wide, including in Michigan, on Wednesday, December 21st.