The Whale: Brendan Fraser is the best of Darren Aronofsky’s latest film – but the film around him sucks
Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated on? If, perhaps, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awards the most awkward film of the year, it will almost certainly go to The Whale.
This is a movie about often annoying people who say and do mean things to each other – and to themselves – without ever considering the consequences. It was noisy and empty. It has nothing interesting to say about anyone or anything in it.
Stare at Darren Aronofsky’s bland, alluring painting, and it begins to fall on its own. Was this really the film that received a standing ovation in six minutes at its Venice premiere?
All of this, you might say, is irrelevant. We’re here for beloved Brendan Fraser, who, after years of seclusion, is back in business, with an Oscar nomination. Good for him.
Now, it’s a curious argument that Fraser’s paper-laden resume ranks him among the giants of cinema. Let’s not lose ourselves. We can’t go around pretending that George of the jungle and Mummies cinematic masterpieces.
But yes, Fraser is one of the good guys, and that man can act. He brings warmth, charisma, and life to even the most smug roles (including his own in amazing). It hardly goes without saying that he’s the ultimate in Aronofsky’s latest work. But the drama surrounding him is terrible.
We start – and end – in the protagonist’s apartment. Charlie (Fraser) is in bad shape. Weighing almost impossible 42 stone, he was essentially imprisoned in his own body and could barely get off the couch.
It’s likely his heart will soon give up, and – although his caregiver Liz (Hong Chau) advises against doing so – Charlie is keen to reconnect with his scabies teenage daughter her cold, Ellie (Sadie Sink).
You might ask, what happened to Charlie? His partner has died, and he turns to food to ease his pain. Everything spiraled out of control, and no one around noticed. His ex-wife Mary (Samantha Morton) doesn’t allow him to see their daughter. (Charlie left her for a man, and Mary never got over it.)
There may still be time to fix things, and Ellie’s arrival coincides with the arrival of a Christian missionary (Thomas of Ty Simpkins) looking to save Charlie’s soul.
Indeed, Aronofsky’s film is chained to a single setting, and that’s where its biggest problem lies. Whale is actually based on a play by Samuel D Hunter, and the famous playwright adapted his own text here. Fair enough. The problem is that some of our performers seem to think they’re on stage. Aronofsky, too, directs this rickety, unimaginative performance that resembles a Broadway tragedy.
Lights off to let us know when the scene is over. The support players shouted knocking on the door before they entered the room. Most of them use the angry, marching action towards the audience that stage actors do whenever they are asked to handle big, emotional scenes. Add to that a sassy, overbearing score, and you’ve got yourself a dripping widescreen soap opera.
Hunter’s watery script is sometimes interspersed with serious themes and themes. Grief, self-harm, divorce, America’s corrupt health care system – it’s all up for grabs. Everything also has a bit of Scripture in between.
Video of the day
Take a sip of whiskey every time he uses the phrase ‘awesome’ – you’ll be halved within an hour
Oddly enough, then, for such a loud, funny story, Whale struggle to justify its existence. It’s shallow, boring content, and Aronofsky overdoes it with gritty repetitive shots of Charlie gobbling up fatty foods.
Hammy, heavy-handed, and – in the case of Fraser’s teammates – over-the-top, this messy, superficial film doesn’t seem to know what it’s about. Somehow, Fraser (performed in a fake suit) managed to extract gold shards from a poorly drawn character.
The real magic is in the eyes and Fraser’s is working from time to time here. But Charlie is a bit of a mystery. He is supposed to be an English professor (he teaches online, no webcam) but his vocabulary is a bit limited. Take a sip of whiskey every time he uses the term ‘awesome’ – you’ll be halved within an hour.
Others are not able to root for. Ellie is a bad egg that enjoys the misfortune of others. The missionary boy is selfish. Liz needs to stop yelling at her patients. We don’t have the time or space to recall the narrative crimes that are irretrievable in the closing act.
Whale not Aronofsky’s worst film – that honor goes to Mother! – but that’s probably his clumsiest. Fraser deserves better.
In theaters February 3; Certificate 16
https://www.independent.ie/entertainment/movies/movie-reviews/brendan-fraser-is-the-best-thing-about-the-whale-but-the-film-around-him-is-terrible-42320859.html The Whale: Brendan Fraser is the best of Darren Aronofsky’s latest film – but the film around him sucks