April 7, 2023 | ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT | By Sophia Lisco
“In the amazing book ‘Moby Dick’ by the author Herman Melville, the author recounts his story of being at sea,” says Charlie, a college literature instructor, in what he believes is his last breath. Charlie, played by Brendan Fraser, weighs over 600 pounds and, when “The Whale” opens, is dying.
Thanks to his incredible performance, Fraser took home the Oscar for Best Actor this year, once again earning the spotlight after spending years on the cusp of obscurity. The film also took home Best Makeup and Hairstyling for the cutting edge (though controversial) technologies used to transform Fraser into an obese man without sacrificing any facial movement.
Despite serious screen time at the Oscars, “The Whale” has divided critics – something director Darren Aronofsky has come to expect by now. After putting out surreal works like “Mother!”, “Black Swan”, and “Requiem for a Dream,” Aronofsky now borders on auteur status, known for his attention to morbidity and psychological elements. Like it or not, “The Whale” is no exception.
Adapted from a stage play of the same name, “The Whale” tells the story of Charlie, a severely obese man essentially unable to leave the confines of his apartment. Grieving a tragic loss, Charlie has fallen into a depression, causing him to gain weight. As his health deteriorates and he copes with the reality that he has only a week to live, he attempts to reconnect with his estranged teenage daughter (Sadie Sink) whom he left as a child to pursue a passionate love affair.
Somewhat inspired by the real life of original playwright Samuel D. Hunter, the script for “The Whale” functions effectively on stage. On the screen, however, “The Whale” feels uncomfortably claustrophobic especially when combined with the 4:3 aspect ratio chosen by Aronofsky.
Critics of “The Whale” accuse Aronofsky of fetishizing obesity. Charlie’s body is shot in a way that makes him seem larger than life. Scenes of him eating are accompanied by extreme close-ups and sound effects that seem to be designed to disgust the viewer. When he almost has a heart attack in the first five minutes of the film, viewers are ultimately let in on one thing: “you will spend the duration of the film waiting for Charlie to die.”
The film – and Charlie – is saved from the pitfalls of such spectacle by Fraser’s incredible performance. Charlie is a beautifully devastating character and Fraser portrays this complex with the use of only his eyes. The immaculate expressions and voice inflections instill a depth to the character that only Fraser could provide.
Throughout the film, Charlie is repeatedly visited not only by his daughter, but by his caretaker and friend (Hong Chau), a young missionary (Ty Simpkins), a pizza delivery man, and, eventually, his ex-wife (Samantha Morton). Charlie’s interactions with these characters in his life reveal stories of love and loss and the nature of existence.
Aronofsky’s hints at symbolism throughout the film ultimately fail to be cohesive, but Charlie’s contrived martyrdom is evident. Despite Aronofsky’s apparent attempts to use physical form to revolt and repel, audiences will come to love Hunter’s Charlie for his heart. Charlie is a character that, despite physical incapacitation, will still feed the birds at his windowsill. He is someone who wishes to hear a student’s book report in his dying moments because it is just “a really good essay.” It is thanks to Fraser and Charlie that audiences will watch the credits roll through tears in their eyes.
Viewers hoping to see how far cinema has come in character creation should see “The Whale.” Despite Aronofsky’s borderline offensive depiction of obesity, the prosthetics-CGI combination alongside Brendan Fraser’s performance is worth a watch. If you want to watch a ‘good movie,’ however… maybe skip this one and see the play instead.
“The Whale” is available to stream now.