Acclaimed filmmaker Darren Aronofsky has distinguished himself by not shying away from difficult or disturbing subject matter. Since his 1998 feature-length debut “π,” he’s tackled drug addiction, obsessive/self-destructive behavior, journeys into madness and violent psychological horror, all with equal aplomb.
Aronofsky’s latest, “The Whale” (A24), is a different animal altogether. Based on gay playwright Samuel D. Hunter’s play of the same name, with a screenplay by Hunter, the movie is stifling and stagey, which is conceivably intentional as the main character, the morbidly obese Charlie (Brendan Fraser giving a career comeback performance that is almost guaranteed an Oscar nomination), has extremely limited mobility.
However, the setting – Charlie’s ramshackle Idaho apartment – isn’t the lone source of the movie’s issues. Often, it’s the dialogue and the actors’ movements; there are lots of clunky scenes where an offended or distraught character stops in the doorway mid-exit (per the original stage directions, one assumes) and waits for the next line. Are these awkward and repetitive scenes the fault of the director or the screenwriter who adapted his own stage play?
Viewers can decide for themselves, as “The Whale” is certainly worth seeing for Fraser’s performance alone. His portrayal of Charlie is spectacular. The emotiveness in his eyes and facial expressions — he is suffering, physically and emotionally — are among the most authentic we’ve seen on screen this year.
The titular beast is the one from Melville’s “Moby Dick,” the subject of which is a term paper that has a soothing effect on housebound Charlie, as his body, specifically his heart and blood pressure, take its toll. Charlie is a gay man who left his wife Mary (Samantha Morton) and young daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink), years earlier for a male lover (and former student) named Allen.
Charlie has never recovered from the loss of Allen, whose death by suicide was precipitated by his family’s involvement in a cult-like Christian church. Allen’s sister Liz (Hong Chau), a nurse, has remained close to Charlie. So close, in fact, that she’s the one standing by helplessly as Charlie eats himself into oblivion. Choking on meatball subs, gobbling down two pizzas multiple slices at a time, devouring bags of candy bars, and so on.
Charlie, whose attempt to eat his sadness, is interrupted by the arrival of Thomas (Ty Simpkins), who claims to be a missionary from the same fanatical church that led to Allen’s early demise. Additionally, Charlie, aware that the end of his life is near, has made an effort to reconnect with Ellie, the daughter he hasn’t seen in seven years. Now a sullen high schooler, Ellie doesn’t make it easy on Charlie.
What follows is a devastating portrait of reconciliation and failure. Often difficult to watch and absorb without looking away, “The Whale” ultimately stays afloat because of Fraser’s sensitive work. Rating: B-