The Whale Synopsis: A reclusive English teacher (Brendan Fraser) suffering from severe obesity attempts to reconnect with his teenage daughter for one last chance at redemption. Based on a play by Samuel Hunter.
Self-aware of his near-fatal health condition, Charlie vies to find a sense of solace amidst his suffering by forging a connection with his estranged daughter in The Whale.
As the latest project from Requiem for a Dream writer/director Darren Aronofsky, The Whale serves as a fitting continuation of the auteur’s finite sensibility. Past works of his, like The Wrestler and Black Swan, define aching portraits of characters gradually succumbing into their ill-timed abyss. Both movies reflect painful truths from their authentic approach, but other works of Aronofsky drown under their overbearing nihilism.
I found both of his recent works, 2014’s Noah and 2017’s Mother, painfully overworked. While densely packed with intriguing allegories and Arronofsky’s panache for bold thematic swings, neither title connected for me in films that ultimately rang hollow in their pursuits.
The Whale marks another unfortunately ill-conceived endeavor for Aronofsky. Framed as an intimate character piece, The Whale eventually disintegrates into a blunt soap opera that wildly disconnects from its noble pursuits.
The narrative stumbles from jump street. A clunkily-handled opening scene introduces the film’s erratic swings at shocking its audience as our obese protagonist, Charlie, finds himself entrapped by uncontrollable excess. Paralyzed by his behaviors and somber past, Charlie goes through the same day-to-day routine while fully aware that it will lead to his demise.
I do think Aronofsky and screenwriter Samuel Hunter possess sincere intentions in reckoning with Charlie and his dour existence while trying to discover a life-affirming silver lining from his journey. For me, the execution feels far too myopic for its own good. Every narrative and stylistic inclusion belabor the material’s inherent misery, so much so that barebones efforts to include a semblance of optimism feel half-hearted in their delivery.
Aronofsky’s direction remains particularly heavy-handed. He and Cinematographer Matthew Libatique utilize a tightened 1.33 aspect ratio to relay a sense of claustrophobia – a choice that only works to gawk at its subject’s failing physical state rather than imbuing any worthwhile merits. An abrasive score by Rob Simonsen further hammers home the grating aesthetics. Every choice works to amplify a vision that desperately misses the mark in conveying a nuanced approach.
In a film adaptation of his stageplay, Hunter’s ambitions also disconnect onscreen. The setup seems promising enough. Charlie and the ensemble cast, which includes his seemingly self-absorbed daughter, a loyal friend tied to Charlie’s painful past, and a visiting missionary, represent fractured and discarded remnants of a divisive society. I admire how Hunter tries to entrench his characters in the zeitgeist, whether it’s the vitriol stemming from a one-sided religious ideology or the dangerous politics sprouting from the 2016 election.
Ultimately, the ideas Hunter grasps towards lie far beyond his reach. The Whale features several high-concept metaphors and subtle pieces of contextual background, yet none of these inclusions add meaningful textures to the characters. Instead, the film basks in its self-seriousness as it confuses busy narrative devices for having something to say. Hunter’s lack of depth especially prevents The Whale from landing its intended punch. Scenes of shallow character development occur solely through mawkish speeches, while the film’s balancing act between hope and anguish concludes ineptly in a maudlin final act.
The great shame in The Whale’s bombastic execution is the remarkable performances buried under the cracks. Brendan Fraser builds upon his recent run of impactful character actor roles with a deeply-affecting performance as Charlie. Even when the film drags Charlie through a melodramatic muck, Fraser imbues quiet sensitivity and raw authenticity that help find some humanity in an ill-convicted character. Saide Sink and Hong Chau also add weight to their supporting roles. Sink commands the screen with a bitting viciousness that works to conceal the character’s frustrations. Likewise, Chau elicits several tender and volatile moments as Charlie’s loyal friend who suffers alongside him.
Not even a trio of standout performances can save The Whale from stumbling. For a film so self-satisfied in its empathy, The Whale radiates misanthropic energy in what ultimately comes across as a pompous piece of Oscar bait. Still, I am happy some are getting value from the film, and my disregard for its failures is no reflection of its talented cast. Let’s all hope Fraser continues to gain momentum in what could be a second-half acting renaissance.
The Whale is now playing in theaters.
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