Many times during The Whale, the same question popped into my head: What exactly would this movie be without Brendan Fraser? Judged strictly on its own merit, this is an exhausting, dour experience that builds to a muddled and unforgivably mawkish conclusion. My opinion of The Whale is much lower than this star rating suggests. That’s how masterful Fraser’s performance is: He electrifies every scene with pulsating emotional current. Everything this movie made me feel, I felt because of him. If Fraser wins the Academy Award for Best Actor, it won’t be because of the socio-cultural momentum of his career “comeback.” No, his work here is just that damn good.
As the film begins, we see something ubiquitous in the time of COVID—the Zoom call. Random young faces checker a computer monitor, each of them drooping into varying degrees of boredom. They are college students in a remote creative writing class. In the blackened center square, the instructor apologizes for his malfunctioning webcam and drones on with his lecture.
Of course, there is no malfunction. Charlie (Fraser) is north of 600 lbs, and is deeply ashamed of his obesity. His weight has rendered him into both an invalid and an agoraphobic. Angina pain ripples through his body, prompting primal groans of agony. The only thing that seems to bring him any solace is a clunky middle school term paper on Moby Dick. Whenever he breaks into shuddering wheezes, Charlie recites this paper like a mantra, and the words seem to supply some unknowable strength.
When we meet Charlie, he’s down to his last friend. Liz (Hong Chau) is a nurse who keeps a daily vigil in Charlie’s apartment. She dutifully takes his vitals, issues dire warnings about congestive heart failure, and then sits with Charlie while he quietly downs a bucket of chicken wings. Liz still loves Charlie, but even she is growing exasperated.
One day, this insulated little world grows bigger with the appearance of two people: Thomas (Ty Simpkins) is a teenage missionary who stumbles into Charlie’s apartment, and is startled by the breathless shut-in glued to the sofa. While Charlie is bemused by this babyfaced evangelical, Liz is downright hostile. Turns out, Charlie’s boyfriend was once a member of the same church, and it somehow played a role in his untimely death. She orders Thomas out of the building, but it’s clear the young man’s curiosity is piqued.
The other arrival is Ellie (Sadie Sink), his estranged daughter. With a volcanic temper and finely-honed sarcasm, Ellie is even edgier than most teenage girls. She storms into Charlie’s living room, still fuming that her father walked out ten years earlier. He desperately wants to repair their relationship while there’s still time. Her trembling, molten death stare would suggest a big bear hug is unlikely to happen.
What follows is an intense, claustrophobic character study. Like Charlie, we never leave the apartment. The only hints of a larger world are snippets of TV news, and they only provide background filler while Charlie binges comfort food. As he hashes things out with the people he loves, it’s clear Charlie is desperately seeking closure for his foundered life. At the same time, those people must come to grips that the Charlie is dying, and every conversation could be the last.
As you might guess, The Whale is a grim experience. By the end, I was completely fatigued. Along this dour journey, I constantly wondered: What is the emotional throughline for all this? As Charlie fumbles from one miserable moment to the next, what is the film trying to say? He’s a food addict with no desire to address his disorder, only to atone for the sorrow he’s caused. Meanwhile, Ellie is a malignant sociopath who’s possibly beyond any empathy for Charlie’s condition. How could any satisfying conclusion be forged from all this?
The truth is, it can’t. Without giving too much away, the film’s final scenes feel startlingly hollow. It’s as if director Darren Afronsky and screenwriter Samuel D. Hunter (adapting his own play) realized they were running out of room on the paper, and started scrambling to squeeze everything into the margins. The final scene manages to be treacly and maddeningly ambiguous, all at once. Again, the film never seems to figure out its attitude toward Charlie and his morbid obesity. Are we supposed to see him as pitiful, courageous, or some paradoxical hybrid of both?
I’ve asked more questions in this review than in any other, and that should tell you something. The Whale left me profoundly confused. It seems built to garner attention and win awards, but is this movie actually any good? I’ll recommend it, based solely on Fraser’s lead performance. He fills Charlie with sadness, wry humor, and humanity that aren’t in the script. When the end draws near, his aching desire to know he’s made a difference to anybody anywhere is heart-wrenching to watch. It lifts the entire movie off its feet. Unfortunately, the material never elevates to the level of the acting.
117 min. R. On demand.