In Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale, mounds upon mounds of prosthetics transform Brendan Fraser into a character many times his life size. That’s the movie’s hook, and its headline, and also its initial controversy. Why, some have wondered, have such vast resources been expended to allow an actor of Fraser’s average height to play a role that a naturally larger man could have filled in his place? Are so-called fat suits inherently dehumanizing, or have they just been put to such use in the past? Wherever one lands on such questions, the reality is that the elaborate full-body makeover of The Whale is no less real than anything else in this fatally overloaded melodrama of compulsion and atonement. His weight dramatic it is also completely false.
Fraser plays Charlie, a college English professor who teaches remotely from his home in small town Idaho. Charlie keeps his webcam off, telling his students that it’s a technical error. In reality, he just doesn’t want them to see him and find out the truth: that he’s a 600+ pound shut-in. It’s been years since Charlie has made any attempts to lose weight, and a new blood pressure reading puts him in the “call 911 right away” danger zone. Eating too much of him is killing him, quickly and decisively. But he won’t go to the hospital.
The whale offers couch-therapy explanations for what Charlie has slowly been doing to his body over the years. (It was always bigger, she explains, but not always that big.) It is a symptom of pain that turned into a spiral of shame, and has gradually manifested itself in an apparent death wish. The film draws out a tragic backstory: an anguished struggle with sexuality, a lover lost to suicide, a family abandoned, an evangelical organization playing its damaging and critical role. The only pleasure Charlie seems to get from life comes from rereading some personal writing, an old college essay on Moby-Dick from which the film draws its double-meaning title. (Her obsession with his unadorned honesty is ironic in such a dishonest drama.)
Adapting his own decade-old stage play, the creator by BasketsSamuel D. Hunter, makes a recent attempt to disguise the theatrical origins of The Whale, which builds on what we are led to understand could be the last days of Charlie’s life. Hunter’s script is an overheated stew of hot topics, tackled by a supporting cast of characters who keep going in right and out left at regular intervals, nudging Charlie toward acceptance or possible redemption.
Among the array of house guests coming and going is Charlie’s long-time friend Liz (Hong Chau of downsizing), a nurse who checks on him regularly, lecturing him about his health while also accepting his pleas for unhealthy food. Hong is so tough, vulnerable and authentic in the role, it’s a shame she’s playing a character who can’t stop spilling her guts through tortuously overwritten monologues. There’s also Thomas (Ty Simpkins), a fresh-faced young missionary who conveniently wanders into the narrative and is determined to save Charlie’s soul before he leaves. (Naturally, he has some demons of his own.) Most prominent is the protagonist’s estranged daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink, better known as Max from stranger things), whom he abandoned to start a new life years earlier. Given those sad circumstances, it’s a bit impressive how unfriendly The whale manage to do it. She’s a true cartoon of venomous teen angst, hurling cyberbullying insults and slurs at anyone near her.
That last subplot, a search for forgiveness by a bad father, reminds the previous The Wrestler by Aronofsky, another portrait of a damaged man pushing his body to life-threatening extremes. One could, in fact, call bodily abuse a regular theme of this hot author’s work, reflected by the dancer’s collapse of black swan and the spiraling addiction to the eating disorder that Ellen Burstyn endures in Requiem for a Dream. Once again, the director can’t resist indulging his fascination with the grotesque. The whale it’s not explicitly an act of cruel fat shaming, as some have stated that the film’s view is unseen; His goal is empathy. But too often Aronofsky’s sympathy congeals into a kind of nightmarish pity, watching Charlie as he masturbates on his couch in a state of mixed agony and pleasure, or as he desperately binge on the glare from his refrigerator.
Not that Fraser seems to be asking for pity. Grabbing perhaps his meatiest role ever, no pun intended, the roster heartthrob The Mummy Y George of the Jungle it struggles mightily with the limitations of superheated material. For all the pain the film pours into his character, the star refuses to play Charlie as a story of moaning sobbing. He brings a touch of repressed playfulness and a light sensibility that productively collides with the heaviness of the material. Burying him in latex might be a kind of stunt casting, but Fraser never lets the artificial girth he dons do the trick for him. Instead, he lets us see glimpses of the easygoing charisma that defined his stellar turns of a life in Hollywood. The impression is not of someone swallowed by his disorder, but of a soul that still blinks under the pain that stimulated it.
But Fraser can’t get past the artifice, the histrionics of community theater, or the contrived dialogue of Hunter’s work. Neither can Aronofsky, that inconsistent but always ambitious master of holy and earthly conflict. The Whale is easily his weakest drama, no matter how fully he commits to the material’s black-box claustrophobia or how incessantly he bloats and pleads the operatic music of Rob Simonsen. To obsess over that cocoon of fake meat that Fraser inhabits is to miss the film’s most essential shortcomings. It carries themes such as poor quality prosthetics, an illusion of depth.
The Whale opens in select theaters December 9. For more information on the writings of AA Dowd, visit his authorship page.