|Samuel D. Hunter
|Brendan Fraser, Sadie Sink, Hong Chau, Ty Simpkins, Samantha Morton, Sathya Sridharan
|February 2, 2023
Since its premiere at the Venice Film Festival last September, the buzz for The Whale has been focused on its leading man, Brendan Fraser. He’s best known for his work in The Mummy franchise but roles in films such as Gods & Monsters, my second favourite release of 1999 behind Being John Malkovich, illustrated his dramatic versatility. It’s been a tough decade though. This is the first time Fraser has starred in a live-action movie which has grossed more than $10 million since the forgettable Furry Vengeance in 2010.
The same industry that collectively turned its back on Fraser has now welcomed him back with open arms. Hollywood loves a comeback (well, every now again). It’s reminiscent of the defibrillator applied to the career of Mickey Rourke in 2008 with his incredible, award-winning performance in The Wrestler. It’s a film which springs to mind as both it and The Whale were directed by Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan). His films tend to be divisive but it’s hard to argue with his ability to find great actors and extract greater performances.
Set entirely within a rundown apartment, The Whale is a two-hour drama centred on a morbidly obese man named Charlie (Fraser) diagnosed with congestive heart failure. He struggles to breathe, experiences chest pains, and isn’t sleeping well. His blood pressure is an alarming 238 over 134! Instead of addressing his health issues, Charlie’s focus is on reconciling with his estranged teenage daughter, Ellie (Sink), who is on the verge of flunking out of high school. The pair haven’t been close since Charlie walked out on the family when Ellie was an impressionable 8-year-old.
The structure of the film is repetitive. Charlie interacts, to varying extents, with five key characters who visit over several days – his aforementioned daughter, his ex-wife (Morton), his caregiver (Chau), a young missionary (Simpkins), and a pizza delivery driver (Sridharan). The conversations he shares with these folk offer partial insight into his messy past (how did he lose contact with his daughter?), his current state (why is he so fat?), and his plans for the future (why doesn’t he seek medical treatment?).
The revolving door nature of these visits (someone leaves, someone enters) give it the feeling of a play. That’s no surprise given the source material is a 2012 stage show authored by Samuel D. Hunter who then adapted it a movie. It’s that script which is the problem here. The worthy performances, headlined by Fraser and Chau who both earned their first Oscar nominations, mask the very limited character development.
There’s not much to this story at all when you break it down. The missionary adds next-to-nothing, the caregiver’s complicity is barely questioned, and Charlie’s “I suddenly decided to put my daughter first” attitude is difficult to reconcile. Having a sad, lonely, overweight protagonist might earn the sympathies of some audience members but I didn’t know enough about these people to care.