Director – Darren Aronofsky – 2022 – US – Cert. 15 – 117m
An obese man nearing his death must confront people from his past as well as incidental visits from the present– out in UK cinemas on Friday, February 3rd
A dysfunctional body, a dysfunctional family, a dysfunctional world. Charlie (Brendan Fraser) has so abused his body that his obesity is on the verge of killing him. He is bereaved of his gay partner for whom he left his wife and eight-year old daughter and earns his living as an online English language tutor for high school students. His nurse friend and unpaid carer Liz (Hong Chau) visits him at regular intervals, but can’t get him to go to hospital since he doesn’t have a healthcare plan and anyway resents pouring money into the healthcare system.
The healthcare element will look a little weird to anyone living in the UK with its “free at the point of need” National Health Service.
His other visitors in the course of the film are his estranged teenage daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink), his wife Mary (Samantha Morton), a suited missionary (Ty Simpkins) and fast food delivery boy (Sathya Sridharan), the latter mostly heard at the door and only finally glimpsed towards the end.
There’s a lot in the dialogue about Herman Melville’s book Moby Dick so the title could refer to either that or Charlie. It’s easy to see the appeal of the pitch: name director Darren Aronofsky directs Brendan Fraser in a serious role in a fat suit; everyone is guessing this will do for Fraser what The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky, 2008) did for Mickey Rourke. Before that film, Aronofsky seemed to have his own idiosyncratic filmmaking style which on that film he threw away to make something fresh, bold and exciting. Those hoping for a comparable coup with the similar sounding The Whale may well find themselves disappointed.
What it DOES have in its favour is advancements in technology: Watching Fraser on the screen as Charlie, I wasn’t quite sure what I was watching and scoured the written press information to find out. Yes, it’s a fat suit, but built and modified on a computer allowing for more directorial input than old school, physically modelled and built body prosthetics.
That said, I didn’t move me as much as the one worn by actress Gabby Millgate in Feed (Brett Leonard, 2005). What it doesn’t appear to be is the actor eating to put on weight for the sake of performance, like the bloated Robert De Niro at the end of Raging Bull (Martin Scorsese, 1981).
Fat suit aside… no, scrub that, because for an actor to work under conditions like this, bringing off a good performance is a different sort of art. Fraser is very good here – although he’s an actor encased in prosthetics, you absolutely believe he’s this guy who’s abused his body and put far too much (and the wrong sort of) food into it and has all sorts of emotional issues.
Charlie believes, probably correctly, that if his online students were to see how he looks they would lose any shred of respect for him, so he keeps his webcam switched off claiming that it’s broken. His wife tells him he’s far too positive, something she hates.
His friend Liz already went through this nursing his late lover (it’s not clear whether she was just the lover’s friend or something more – a partner or spouse, nothing is ever explicitly stated) and she resents Charlie putting her through the experience all over again. Still, she does what she can for him.
The young missionary has his own issues: he believes he needs to convert the world one person at a time and alas, his brand of Christianity is the Bible-thumping variety that doesn’t seem to have any concept of living in the real world and attempting to change it for the better, something which Charlie in his dogged attempts to get his students to write “something honest” is clearly trying to do even if he wouldn’t label it in religious terms. When the visiting Ellie starts to interact with the young missionary, it makes the latter feel uncomfortable.
Charlie’s wife doesn’t turn up ’til the final third, with she and Charlie playing out as a broken couple: there’s still some chemistry there, but too much damage has been done along the way for their relationship to ever work again.
In short, this is an adaptation of a stage play that Aronofsky saw on Broadway and loved. Despite its taking place inside one apartment, it never feels stagebound. That’s one thing: to say it works as a film is quite another. While it’s good that the director refuses to repeat himself, this may well turn out to be the movie of his that I’ve liked the least.
The Whale is out in cinemas in the UK on Friday, February 3rd.