Plot via IMDB:
Idaho, 2016. Scarred by the profound wounds of grief and guilt, couchbound Charlie, an online writing instructor living with chronic obesity, now has a crystal-clear view of his secret intentions. And confined to his claustrophobic and musty apartment, the self-destructive shut-in has all the time in the world to contemplate the damaging faults of the past, fatherhood, and reconciliation. Because, more than anything, flawed Charlie longs for communication and reconnection. After all, he hasn’t spoken to his estranged, angry teenage daughter Ellie in years. But everyone knows whales don’t live in the shallows. Can love and forgiveness wipe away the tears and the painful mistakes of a lifetime?
Since both my wife and myself are persons of size, we have been avoiding watching The Whale. Brendan Fraser’s Oscar win has now made the movie a catch-up requirement for devoted film fans such as us. So we sat down and streamed it fully prepared to watch all the cliches about morbid obesity play themselves out. Well we got that and more, but also some surprises.
The Whale is a grim and dark portrayal of one man’s attempt to eat himself to death. Such suicidal tendency movies usually get Oscar accolades and statues. Nicolas Cage won one in 1996 for his alcoholic portrayal in Leaving Las Vegas. Brendan Fraser is just the latest issue.
There is really no attempt to open up the film from its Samuel D. Hunter stage influences. Hunter adapted the play and he keeps everything tightly focused to the apartment the 600 pound Charlie chooses to live, die and teach online zoom writing classes from. So the world must come to Charlie. As a result everything is either a haunting echo of the past, an intervention from family and friends, a religious tug of war between Charlie and the Mormon God proxy, or a soliloquy of commiseration from Charlie. It all adds to the claustrophobic and literally dark cinematographic atmosphere. It requires emotive but nicely acted fireworks from the drifting in and out ensemble cast. The point is that Charlie can’t escape his grief anymore than he can escape his massive body. This body of Charlie’s is just the visual symbol of that grief. Brendan Fraser tugs and lugs it for every ounce of compassion he can find. He is determined that Charlie will earn the heavenly redemption he desperately wants.
Unlike the director’s Darren Aronofsky previous character studies, The Whale is a slight lightweight. It’s just as good emotionally as The Wrestler, which earned Mickey Rourke a Best Actor Oscar. However The Whale is subject to constant bouts of bathos which The Wrestler managed to even out. That makes The Whale the lesser film. The Whale is also not remotely near the realism and depths of compassion Daronofsky achieved in Requiem for a Dream, another harrowing addiction drama. Charlie veers from being a thoroughly sympathetic protagonist to an object of voyeuristic pity and almost zoolike fascination.
Like Ben Sanderson in Leaving Las Vegas, Charlie is a man determined to kill himself. Food and not booze is his suicide pill. The eating scenes in The Whale are staged in acute visual and sonic detail. Every slurp and glurp is amplified by the sound design team. Food isn’t life giving. It’s the expression of a death wish. The Whale delivers the ultimate negative cliche of obesity. That idea is wrong, harmful and ultimately repulsive to everyone with obesity.
The only realistic relationship in The Whale is the one between Charlie and his nurse, Liz, played marvelously by Hong Chau in a well deserved Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominated performance. The two’s deadpan gallows humor comes from love and the emotional intimacy of true friendship.
The film ultimately gives in to its strident and talky stage origins. It rushes through the third act intent on finishing things up, instead of finishing them well. Everything is played top level harsh and strident and at a hysterical pitch. It’s the dramatics of a failed intervention that must be observed. A false redemption must be achieved to save their souls and not Charlie’s.
The Whale gets a 3.5 out of 5 or a B+.
Based onThe Whale
by Samuel D. Hunter
- Jeremy Dawson
- Ari Handel
- Darren Aronofsky
Protozoa PicturesDistributed byA24
- September 4, 2022(Venice)
- December 9, 2022(United States)
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