I was not at the first Venice press screening of Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale, but I did have to see the film that played in the same theater immediately afterward, so I got to wade through a small crowd of still shell-shocked critics as I entered. Before going in, I talked to some colleagues milling about, including a couple of fellow Aronofsky skeptics. They all seemed surprised to have found themselves so devastated by the movie and, in particular, by Brendan Fraser’s performance. The buzz around the movie grew and grew that night and the following day so that, by the time I saw The Whale at its actual premiere in the Sala Grande, the place seemed ready to explode.
And explode it did as soon as the end credits started rolling. The audience response to The Whale, and Fraser, was immediate and immense and sustained. They wouldn’t let him leave. He kept taking bows and bows. He got emotional. Everybody got emotional. It was the kind of total love-in one lives to see at festivals like this.
It felt well deserved. It’s a great comeback story for a beloved box-office star who rarely got the kinds of serious parts that might have led to awards buzz in the past. In his heyday, Fraser had a seemingly effortless charm that allowed him to glide easily through big poppy movies without ever looking as if he were trying too hard or, worse, not taking things seriously. He always seemed like a sweet guy who was just happy to be there, but he never seemed like a joke. (The films sometimes were jokes, but not him.)
That sweetness is on full display in The Whale, though Aronofsky’s film would probably not be described by anyone as “sweet.” Based on Samuel D. Hunter’s play, it’s the story of Charlie, a 600-pound man who doesn’t leave his apartment, teaches English via Zoom (with his camera always turned off, citing technical issues), and is trying desperately to reconnect with his bitter, estranged daughter (Sadie Sink) before he dies from congestive heart failure. He could and should go to the hospital, but he refuses, citing a lack of health insurance. Charlie seems almost ready to die. He has a downright Zen response when his headstrong nurse, Liz (Hong Chau), freaks out about his blood-pressure numbers. He talks about pain in a matter-of-fact fashion. Charlie, we sense, is always in pain. Near him, he keeps an old, mysterious student essay on Moby-Dick, which he starts reading to himself whenever he has a health scare, even though he’s already memorized it, because he wants to go out on a beautiful note. Talk about symbolism!
Fraser and Aronofsky have talked about trying to portray Charlie’s life-threatening obesity in a compassionate manner, including in their use of prosthetics, which has come under some criticism. The Whale is certainly not a movie about “fat jokes” (though there are a couple of them, particularly in the occasionally comic back-and-forth between Charlie and Liz). But here’s the thing: The film is built around the idea of revulsion and extreme consumption. It has multiple scenes of Charlie eating enormous amounts of food. He stress-eats candy bars when he Googles details about his medical condition. At one point, riddled with shame and guilt, he cries, gorges on piles of food, then vomits it out before our eyes. The idea is that this man is killing himself. The food isn’t so much food as it is a metaphor for all the hurt and pain he’s absorbed. The whole thing is a metaphor, and as such, it’s pitched a few degrees off from reality.
Is Charlie presented as pathetic? Well, yes, but in the original meaning of the word: He evokes sympathy and sadness, not ridicule or contempt. When he talks to people, his eyes are wide and inquisitive, and there’s a half-smile on his face. He seems open, kind, curious — and shy. Prosthetic or no, it’s a perfect part for Fraser. It’s hard to imagine anyone else in the part, frankly. The character’s demeanor makes sense for someone who doesn’t see much company, who is ashamed to show himself to strangers but still longs to connect.
Aronofsky has made a point of not opening up Hunter’s play, which means that not only does the action of the film take place entirely within the confines of Charlie’s apartment, it also has such theatrical devices as people just wandering in at pivotal moments in the story. It’s a wise choice because The Whale is filled with key elements that would stand out as stagy if its world were rendered more realistically. (Remember that essay on Moby-Dick?) Through his interactions with his daughter and a young missionary (Ty Simpkins) for a fundamentalist religion called the New Life, we learn about Charlie’s past — he left his family because he fell in love with one of his night-school students nine years ago, and he hasn’t been the same since his lover, Alan, died. Indeed, Charlie has basically been eating himself to death since then.
Despite the director’s formal control and the confined setting, The Whale can, for much of its running time, feel tonally muddled. Dark comedy juts against deep emotion, languor bumps against speed. Characters give speeches about religion, and they deliver blunt passages of exposition that can feel awkward. As open and gentle as Fraser’s performance is, the actors around him, particularly Sink, are stylized and brutal — their cutting, angry remarks are delivered in rapid-fire, theatrical fashion. It all feels, initially, like a mistake. But by the final scene, we realize that what we’ve been watching is akin to a chemical experiment; Aronofsky has brought these disparate elements together to bounce them against one another. At one point, I wondered if there was something wrong with the projection because the film was so visually muddy — until someone finally opened a door and gorgeous, gorgeous sunlight flooded the screen. Once everything finally collides in The Whale, something shattering and beautiful and honest emerges.
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