‘The Whale’ Review

Months before it was released, almost from the moment it was announced, Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale has caused every corner of the Internet to hunker down for the impending war of takes, opinions, and causes. On the one hand, the film has been destined to launch Brendan Fraser’s comeback and perhaps even snag him the Oscar that millennials and Gen-Z all believe he deserves. On the other hand, the film itself is based on a highly controversial, borderline unreadable/unlistenable play about a morbidly obese man eating himself to death, which has already garnered several think pieces and criticisms about the stereotypes it perpetuates.

The question has seemingly remained, since the film’s Venice debut, whether The Whale would be an Oscar-worthy tour-du-force or a dramatic, Oscar-baity, offensive disaster. As it turns out, there’s a third option that no one dared consider: that The Whale would be hilariously, unwatchably bad, deserving of the same breath and sentence as Tommy Wiseau’s The Room.

Many years ago, Charlie (Fraser) left his wife Mary (Samantha Morton) and daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink) for a male night school student of his named Alan. When Alan committed suicide not long after, Charlie sank into a deep depression coupled with binge eating, ultimately reaching 600 pounds. Too large to leave his apartment, and too embarrassed to be seen, Charlie spends his days alone, teaching from his computer while receiving treatment from his nurse – and only friend – Liz (Hong Chau).

With Charlie reaching the final stages of congestive heart failure, and the end ultimately in sight, he embarks on one final quest: to reunite with his now-embittered daughter, in the hopes of both salvaging the relationship and reminding her that there’s still good in the world, despite his past failures.

The problem with The Whale is evident almost from the jump. While the film touches on several other themes, including religion, guilt, forgiveness, and mortality – none of which are explored beyond surface-level declarations from the cast – the story’s ultimate message, apparently, is “empathy.” Samuel Hunter’s script, coupled with Aronofsky’s direction, hinges on the central conceit that we must not judge Charlie based on his monstrous exterior, but on the content of his character – to see the beauty in a man who might otherwise disgust us.

The problem with that conceit, however, is that it only exists if one were to assume Charlie was a monster based on his physical appearance in the first place – which defeats the entire purpose. It offers up poor Fraser, caked under layers of prosthesis and sweat stains shaped like whale tails and wisps of hair, and challenges us not to gawk at him like the Elephant Man. Actually, that’s an unfair analogy; David Lynch showed far more restraint and empathy in his portrayal of John Merrick.

The Whale feigns at the notion of empathy, and yet it’s hard to buy when characters speak in on-the-nose asides with more than a whiff of Wiseau’s earnest tastelessness and the almost-comical ways in which Charlie’s obesity are portrayed. Almost every scene sees him attacking a bucket of fried chicken or three-foot meatball sub like the Tazmanian Devil. In one scene, he opens a drawer, looks at the healthy food inside, and scoffs before finding another drawer filled with candy bars; in another, he eats an entire pizza in one bite, topped with mayonnaise he pulled out of the fridge.

Later, he starts to choke on his sandwich, and Liz has to jump on his back like he’s a trampoline. All of this is accompanied by Rob Simonsen’s horror-adjacent score – presumably due to the horrors of his diet, although it’s hard not to assume someone along the way viewed Charlie as the creature. It’s grotesque nature is extreme to the point of absurdity; indeed, it is hard to view the film as anything but a comedy. Not because there’s anything funny with Charlie’s ailment or health conditions, but because the film seems to possess such a hatred of Charlie – and perhaps all fat people in general – that it reaches comical levels.

Yet setting aside the film’s treatment of Charlie and his struggles, The Whale faces a deeper, innate threat to its very existence. Somewhere around the halfway point of the film, after witnessing poorly staged scene after poorly staged scene of actors trying their best to make the most utterly horsesh*t lines sound natural within the most utterly absurd scenarios, one has to ask the question I’ve hinted at throughout this entire review: how is this not The Room? This is not rhetorical; every moment of forced elevated drama, coupled with elementary-school level dialogue and symbolism elicits memories of the 2003 so-bad-it’s-good masterpiece. Aronofsky might as well have taglined this film “With the passion of Tennessee Williams.”

Don’t believe me? Let’s look at the evidence. The first scene, right out of the gate, features Charlie almost dying of a heart attack while masturbating to gay porn. Immediately after, he stands up and reveals that his sweat has taken the form of a whale’s tail. Yes, despite the fact the script goes out of its way to prove that “it’s called The Whale because of Moby Dick, you’re sick if you thought we meant Charlie,” the film still has to remind you that Charlie is, in fact, an animal in the eyes of the filmmakers.

In a stunning example of cluelessness, a major plot point involves Charlie’s aversion to going to the hospital. One would assume that this would be related to the rampant instances of abuse and near-malpractice that obese people face when entering the American healthcare system. But logic is not something that Hunter or Aronofsky traffic in – instead, they create a dumber, more symbolic reason for this decision.

Hell, The Whale and The Room even share the same ending, in a way – although to say anything more would technically involve a spoiler, which I will avoid despite the fact that you should never watch this film. The Whale isn’t bad because it’s offensive. It’s offensive because it’s bad – and we deserve more from an Oscar-nominated filmmaker.

I wish I could turn around and say “At least the acting was good,” or praise Fraser for his brave or accomplished work, especially as a comeback is so well deserved. Sadly, this is not the film to do so. While Fraser possesses an innate sweetness and playfulness that speaks to Charlie’s soul, any nuance that could have been present in the performance is lost behind the pounds of makeup. The fat suit required to properly mortify the audience (not my words, just clearly the director’s intention) never moves or shifts like the human body, leaving Fraser’s performance underneath it feeling as hollow as the layers of fake fat he dons.

It’s not just Fraser, however. Every performer suffers under the weight of false character choices and inhuman lines. Ty Simpkins is wooden as a cult missionary (don’t get me started on this character, I have another thousand words to rant about him). Sink plays to the rafters – understandably so, given her character’s over-the-top, obnoxious teen lingo – yet never feels like a human being. And the great Hong Chau is left feeling caustic. Only Samantha Morton remains unscathed, mainly because her character only has one scene.

In fact, that scene – which involves all four of the principals together in one room – is one of the only two sequences capable of salvaging this film. These two moments are the only ones where the characters feel like real people, as opposed to written caricatures reading cue cards offscreen. Sadly, as great as these scenes are, their greatness simply underlines everything wrong with the rest of the film. Their realness exposes the fragile falsity of the rest of the film, and ultimately confirms its utter depravity.

The Whale is a film that transcends its own grotesqueness. Even if one were to parse away the contradiction notions on obesity and humanity, the film itself is so unbearable as to render such debates useless. Aronofsky has crafted a bad film from a bad script, and no amount of acting can save it. I suppose, in the same vein as Tommy Wiseau’s aforementioned dramatic failure, The Whale could find new life as a black comedy; a film where the lurid views of Brendan Fraser attacking a bucket of fried chicken with the same passion as a starved dog are greeted with the laughter they deserve. But in its current state, as the piece of “dramatic, haunting empathy” the film alleges to purport, this is nothing more than a big, fat failure across the board.

D+

The Whale is now playing in theaters nationwide

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