Tthe tragedy and wonder of movies is that it’s not just about what it’s about, but how they are for what they are. in To Darren Aronofsky The whale— played in a contest on the 79th Venice Film Festival—Brendan Fraser plays Charlie, a man who has given up on life, which in turn affects how and what he eats. He gets takeout pizza every night and finds solace in big, messy sandwiches and buckets of fried chicken. He has drawers full of candy bars that he rummages through while grading papers—he’s a writing instructor who teaches exclusively online, with the camera off so his students can’t see him. That’s because Charlie is undeniably obese: he can’t get around without a walker or wheelchair, and getting in and out of bed would be impossible without a ceiling-mounted pull-up bar. In fact, he never leaves the house, even for medical care. He has no insurance, so he relies on his closest and only friend, Liz (Hong Chau, in a bright, invigorating performance) who, luckily, is a nurse and also has the knack of stopping by at just the right moment. On one such visit, after Charlie has something of a seizure, she takes his blood pressure: it’s 238 over 134. She urges him to go to the hospital; he refuses, claiming he has no money.
This is a story about a man in deep pain – which is to say, his impulses are honorable. (It was adapted from a play by Samuel D. Hunter.) And the film is incredibly moving at times, thanks to Fraser’s subtle, wistful performance. Fraser wore a suit to play the part, sparking critical chatter online. But for better or worse, this is a film about a man who finds himself in an extreme situation, and to read it as a parable about body acceptance would be remiss. It’s a drama about how grief can spin our lives out of control, a story that evokes sympathy for the main character. Both goals are noble and worthy.
Read more: The 52 Most Anticipated Movies of Fall 2022
But it doesn’t The whale a great movie or even a particularly good one. Aronofsky is one of those directors who provokes fierce defense from some and outright derision from others, but almost no one is neutral about him. His latest film, the 2017 Crazytown terrorized-wife fantasy Mother! it was for some a tortured, senseless spectacle, for others a cautionary tale about the potential cruelty of the creative impulse. His 2010 Mad Ballerina Saga Black swan it was either a work of flamboyant silliness that was impossible to take seriously, or a cautionary tale about the potential cruelty of the creative impulse. Do you see a pattern here?
the whale, at least it’s a different kind of film for Aronofsky, who managed to steer the camera’s gaze away from his own navel. Even so, there’s a lot of cheeky viewing in the over-the-top bleakness of his approach. Shot by his regular collaborator Matthew Libatik, the film has the damp look of used dishwater – to represent Charlie’s despair, the complete lack of light in his life, of course. Charlie’s body is often limited by the frame, just to make sure we really, really understand how limited his life is. When you hear some somber flute music on the soundtrack, don’t be surprised if the needle on your pathos detector turns far into the red. There are also moments when Aronofsky leans too hard on the sweat stains, front and back, that dot Charlie’s T-shirts, or the grease around his lips as he rips into his food. Aronosfky walks a fine line between compassion and exploitation here. Even if he means well, he still flips that line from time to time.
Sadie Sink in “The Whale”
Niko Tavernise—Palouse Rights LLC.
But sometimes an actor can help minimize a director’s flaws, and that’s what Fraser does here. Charlie is an extremely kind, smart, sensitive person who has been destroyed by grief. He’s been married once, and the story’s dramatic stakes skyrocket when his estranged teenage daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink), it shows. She didn’t do this uninvited—Charlie hadn’t seen her in years, and he longed to keep in touch with her. But he left her and her mother (played by an uncharacteristically tinny, pinched Samantha Morton) when Ellie was just eight, and neither of them forgave him—especially since he abandoned them for a man, the love of his life, who has since died .
Another character, a fresh-faced door-to-door missionary played by Ty Simpkins, has a tenuous connection to the circumstances that led to the death of Charlie’s partner. All these people gather in Charlie’s cramped apartment just as he is experiencing—or acting out—the last days of his life. Charlie’s grief and what he sees as the mistakes he has made in his life have filled him with anxiety and guilt, and the only way he can deal with these feelings is to work his way through them, even beyond the point at which he realizes his extra pounds are killing him. His compulsion is a kind of suicide pact he’s made with himself, and he’s locked in a vicious cycle: his increasing weight seems to have made him more depressed and less able to cope, a condition he self-medicates by eats (The movie title is a reference to moby dick, the subject of an essay that Charlie loves and returns to again and again for comfort.)
The point of Fraser’s performance, however, is to see person as opposed to just the body. Ellie is, as her mother rightly points out at one point, a truly terrible teenager, even though her father only sees her intelligence and honesty. He keeps using the adjective “amazing” to describe her, and the more he uses it, the more we almost believe it, even as her behavior continues to reinforce our initial impression. At one point, she demands that her father stand up and walk to her unaided, a seemingly simple task that is completely overwhelming for him – it’s horrifying when he collapses to the floor.
Charlie is a bit cocky, too eager to see the good in others, even though he is unable to recognize his own outstanding qualities. At the beginning of the film, Liz tells Charlie that he will die of congestive heart failure within days if he doesn’t seek treatment, which of course he refuses to do. The mechanics of this story require the others to be redeemed, even if it is too late for Charlie to save himself. You can predict the gist of the movie’s ending, if not its specifics, very early on.
But Frazier—always a wonderful actor and one who hasn’t had the career he deserves—defies the predictability of the film’s arc. He shows us Charlie’s self-pity and allows to be boring. There are so many ways this guy is just a pain to be around; his self-destruction is at least partly intertwined with his self-centeredness. Frasier doesn’t just give us permission to feel annoyed with this character; it leads us to exactly these feelings.
Yet to look into his eyes is to see a man who is ready to die, though he wishes he had the will to live. I’m not sure it’s possible to watch this flawed film, which drifts too self-absorbed in its own bleak atmosphere, and not wish you could relate to Charlie, find the right thing to say, help without to condemn. It seems almost as if Charlie, in his goodness, is comforting us for our own feelings of worthlessness. But really, this is Frasier at work, not telling us what to feel, but assuring us that everything is fine to I feel it.
More must-see stories from TIME