In Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale, mounds upon mounds of prosthetics rework Brendan Fraser into a personality many instances his actual measurement. That’s the hook of the film, and its headline, and likewise its early controversy. Why, some have puzzled, have such nice sources been expended to permit an actor of Fraser’s common stature to play a task a naturally bigger man may have occupied as a substitute? Are so-called fats fits inherently dehumanizing, or have they only been put to that use previously? Wherever one lands on such questions, the truth is that the flowery full-body makeover of The Whale isn’t any much less actual than anything on this fatally overwrought melodrama of compulsion and atonement. Its dramatic heft is solely phony, too.
Fraser performs Charlie, a school English professor who teaches remotely from his residence in small-town Idaho. Charlie retains his webcam off, telling his college students it’s a technical error. In actuality, he simply doesn’t need them to see him, and uncover the reality: that he’s a shut-in who weighs over 600 kilos. It’s been years since Charlie’s made any try to drop pounds, and a brand new blood stress studying places him within the “call 911 immediately” hazard zone. His overeating is killing him, quickly and decisively. But he gained’t go to the hospital.
The Whale provides therapy-couch explanations for what Charlie has slowly been doing to his physique over time. (He was at all times larger, he explains, however not at all times this large.) It’s a symptom of grief that turned a spiral of disgrace, and has step by step manifested in an obvious loss of life want. The movie wheels out carts and carts of tragic backstory: an anguished grapple with sexuality, a lover misplaced to suicide, an deserted household, an evangelical group that performed its damaging, judgmental half. The solely pleasure Charlie appears to derive from life comes from rereading a private scripture, an outdated pupil essay on Moby Dick from which the movie attracts its dual-meaning title. (His obsession with its unvarnished honesty is ironic in such a dishonest drama.)
Adapting his personal decade-old stage play, Baskets creator Samuel D. Hunter makes little try to disguise the theatrical origins of The Whale, which unfolds over what we’re led to know could be the previous couple of days of Charlie’s life. Hunter’s screenplay is an overheated stew of hot-button points, tackled by a supporting forged of characters that preserve coming into proper and exiting left at common intervals, nudging Charlie towards acceptance or attainable redemption.
Among the ensemble of coming and going home friends is Charlie’s longtime pal, Liz (Downsizing’s Hong Chau), a nurse who checks up on him often, lecturing him about his well being whereas additionally acquiescing to his pleas for unhealthy meals. Hong is so powerful and susceptible and genuine within the position, it’s a disgrace she’s taking part in a personality who can’t cease spilling her guts through torturously overwritten monologues. There’s additionally Thomas (Ty Simpkins), a younger, fresh-faced missionary who relatively conveniently wanders into the narrative and turns into decided to save lots of Charlie’s soul earlier than it departs. (Naturally, he has some demons of his personal.) Most outstanding is the protagonist’s estranged daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink, finest referred to as Max from Stranger Things), who he deserted to begin a brand new life years earlier. Given these unhappy circumstances, it’s sort of spectacular how unsympathetic The Whale manages to make her. She’s a veritable cartoon of venomous teen angst, hurling slurs and cyberbullying insults at anybody in her proximity.
That final subplot, a bad-dad quest for forgiveness, remembers Aronofsky’s earlier The Wrestler, one other portrait of a broken man pushing his physique to life-threatening extremes. One may, actually, name corporeal abuse a daily theme of this hots-hot auteur’s work, mirrored by the hangnail-pulling ballerina meltdown of Black Swan and the spiraling eating-disorder dependancy Ellen Burstyn endures in Requiem for a Dream. Here once more, the director can’t resist indulging his fascination with grotesquerie. The Whale isn’t explicitly an act of callous fat-shaming, as some have declared the film sight unseen; its intention is empathy. But too typically does Aronofsky’s compassion curdle right into a sort of nightmare pity, gazing upon Charlie as he masturbates on his sofa in a state of co-mingled agony and pleasure, or as he desperately binges by the glow of his fridge.
Not that Fraser ever appears to be begging for pity. Grabbing perhaps his meatiest position ever, no pun supposed, the one-time A-list heartthrob of The Mummy and George of the Jungle wrestles mightily with the constraints of the overheated materials. For all of the struggling the movie pours on his character, the star refuses to play Charlie as a morose sob story. He brings a touch of suppressed mirth, and a light-weight sensitivity that clashes productively with the heaviness of the fabric. Burying him in latex could be a sort of stunt casting, however Fraser by no means lets the substitute girth he dons do the performing for him. Instead, he lets us see glimmers of the carefree charisma that outlined his derring-do star turns of a Hollywood lifetime in the past. The impression just isn’t of somebody swallowed by their dysfunction, however of a soul nonetheless flickering beneath the ache that spurred it.
But Fraser can’t overcome the contrivances, community-theater histrionics, or clanging synthetic dialogue of Hunter’s play. Nor can Aronofsky, that inconsistent however at all times formidable maestro of holy and earthly battle. The Whale is well his limpest drama, regardless of how absolutely he commits to the black-box claustrophobia of the fabric or how incessantly Rob Simonsen’s operatic music swells and pleads. To get hung up on that cocoon of faux flesh Fraser inhabits is to overlook the extra important shortcomings of the movie. It wears it themes like shoddy prosthetics, a gimcrack phantasm of profundity.
The Whale opens in choose theaters December 9. Our protection of the Toronto International Film Festival continues all week. For extra of A.A. Dowd’s writing, please go to his Authory web page.