Movie Review: The Whale

Hollywood loves stories about ailing protagonists. Actors love getting those parts too, as they’re often ripe, juicy Oscar bait. Ray Milland (THE LOST WEEKEND), Jon Voight (COMING HOME), Tom Hanks (PHILADELPHIA) and Matthew McConaughey (DALLAS BUYERS CLUB) are just a few of the actors who have reaped Oscar gold for their performances in such films. Now we have THE WHALE, starring Brendan Fraser, who plays a 600-pound man who is facing imminent death due to his unhealthy lifestyle. Considering that Fraser, who is making a career comeback, something else that Hollywood loves, just won the SAG Award for his performance in this film, he is now the frontrunner to win the Best Actor Oscar. But what about the film?

In THE WHALE, Charlie (Fraser) is a reclusive, morbidly obese, college English teacher who tries to reconnect with his estranged teenage daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink, THE GLASS CASTLE; TV’s STRANGER THINGS). Facing congestive heart disease and sky-high blood pressure thanks to his steady diet of buckets of fried chicken, extra-large pepperoni pizzas, meatball subs, 2-liter bottles of soda and drawerfuls of candy bars, he finds solace in an essay about “Moby-Dick”. Charlie sees himself akin to Herman Melville’s literary rare white whale, except for him, his issue relates to the loss of his partner that he can’t get over for reasons that are explained in the story. Over the course of a week, a few people visit Charlie in his cluttered apartment including his only friend and caregiver, nurse Liz (Hong Chau, THE MENU), his ex-wife Mary (Samantha Morton, SHE SAID; FANTASTIC BEASTS), a young missionary named Thomas (Ty Simpkins, AVENGERS: ENDGAME) and his daughter, Ellie. (For a recluse, Charlie sure has a lot of people coming to his door!)

Written by Samuel D. Hunter and based on his play of the same name, and directed by Darren Aronofsky (MOTHER!, NOAH), who seems to be sticking with religiously-themed stories, THE WHALE presents an interesting portrait of a man who is literally eating himself to death as self-punishment for abandoning his child and not being able to protect his lover. Charlie has a thing about honesty, something he encourages both his students and his daughter to be, yet he can’t be that way with himself. He turns off his camera during his online writing classes because he is embarrassed by what he’s become yet he does the exact opposite of what he should do to fix the situation. Unfortunately, Liz, who has her own addiction issue, doesn’t help matters as she enables his unhealthy behaviour. In fact, all the characters here have their addictions. For Liz, it’s tobacco. For Mary, it’s alcohol; Thomas, drugs; and Ellie, anger.

There has been much talk about Fraser’s return to the limelight with his performance here. When THE WHALE premiered at the Venice Film Festival last September, Fraser and the film received a six-minute standing ovation from the appreciative audience. While his performance is the worth watching, it’s not good enough to right this ship. THE WHALE never sheds its theatrical roots with the action almost exclusively taking place in Charlie’s light-starved living room while the other characters all circle around Charlie hurling their verbal harpoons at him. No one does that more than Ellie, who has a mean streak in her that’s as vast as the Atlantic Ocean. To try to make the audience feel Charlie’s shrunken world, Aronofsky employs a boxy 4:3 aspect ratio in his filming. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work and comes across as pretentiously arty. Speaking of pretentious, the film’s ending is a groaner. As the lights came up in the cinema, my colleagues and I amused ourselves by coming up with alternate endings that would have been more interesting than the one the film serves up.

THE WHALE opens in Hong Kong on Thursday (March 3rd). If overly dramatic, expository monologues is your kind of movie entertainment, then THE WHALE is the film for you. It’s this year’s THE WIFE — a mediocre film with a good central performance.

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