I tend to like the films of Darren Aronofsky, even if just for the visuals, and The Whale is a film I was happy to see provide a resurgence for Brendan Fraser, an actor that I (as well as many other people) have always had a soft spot for. A lot of people were quick to praise it, quick to praise Fraser, and it seemed like I was going to find plenty to enjoy here, putting aside the ongoing debate about actors wearing “fat suits”.
I didn’t enjoy The Whale. It has a couple of big problems, and the fat suit is the least of them (although I should note here that I view those items as I view any other make up or wardrobe choices made to help turn any actor into a character, personally).
Written for the screen by Samuel D. Hunter, adapting his own stage play, the biggest problem is the script. This tale, of a morbidly obese man (Charlie, played by Fraser) looking to reconnect with his daughter (Ellie, played by Sadie Sink) as he searches for something honest and real before his heart gives out, just resonates throughout with an inauthenticity that would make the central character belt out a primal scream. It also has a message at the centre of it that feels like it could have been written by any disenchanted teenager.
Aronofsky feels redundant in his role, failing to bring much to the table to stop this from feeling like the filmed stage play it is. We rarely leave the confines of Charlie’s home, and there are too few flourishes to make it feel worth actually being presented as a film. Just set up one or two cameras and present a raw, “live”, version of the play. That might have been better. It might have even rendered the use of the fat suit unnecessary.
Fraser is good, and I am happy for the praise he has been getting, but his performance is supported by the make up. Ty Simpkins does well in a few scenes, playing a stranger who enters Charlie’s life at quite a strange time, and Samantha Morton delivers her usual greatness with her all-too-brief screentime (playing Charlie’s ex-partner, and the mother of Ellie). But the best performances come from Sink, a mix of resentment, sass, and intelligence, and Hong Chau, playing Liz, a woman who is trying to help Charlie, despite him not really caring about his own quality of life. Sink and Chau are the highlights of the whole film, and I wish their performances were a larger part of the conversation during this award season, but nobody does bad work, despite working with a pretty bad script.
I know that Aronofsky isn’t exactly known for his subtlety. He is a director who works best when delivering a powerful message through a selection of powerful visuals. I can see why The Whale appealed to him, but I think he made the wrong choice. This needed either more fantastical imagery to distract from the irritating simplicity of the writing or it needed a director willing to strip it down to the bare bones of a naked performance piece.
A film that is saved, if not elevated, by the main performances, The Whale misses so many opportunities to say something really worthwhile. The people involved ensures that many will see it, and many will love it. I would be very surprised if it is well-remembered more than a decade from now.
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