THE WHALE is elevated by Brendan Fraser’s sincere portrayal

Introduction

Hello kings and kweens. This is a review for The Whale. The Whale is a drama film directed by Darren Aronofsky and features Brendan Fraser is his first starring role for an American film since 2014. I think I liked this movie. It’s a film of highs and lows but ultimately I think there’s more to like about it than not. There are three things I want to talk about with this movie. I want to talk about its casting of Brendan Fraser, I want to talk about the stilted writing and I want to talk about the emotional depth of the film.

Background

When it comes to background there are two things to address. Darren Aronofsky’s work as a director and Brendan Fraser’s journey to getting this role.

Darren Aronofsky has always been a polarizing director. His most acclaimed work is Requiem for a Dream – a movie about addiction starring Ellen Burstyn, Jared Leto, Marlon Wayans, and Jennifer Connelly. Requiem for a Dream is a creatively distinct film because of its overbearing editing style which creates a frenetic atmosphere appropriate for the subject material. Requiem for a Dream is also one of the most emotionally devastating films of all time. It earns the acclaim it gets through its undeniably artistry but the challenging subject material has earned it the reputation of one of the best films you’ll never want to see again.

Aronofsky’s other films are polarizing because the response is typically either adoration or contempt with nothing in between. He is a director that will not leave you indifferent. Perhaps the most notable example here is Mother! I have not seen Mother! but I know for many people it’s what turned them off to Aronofsky’s work because the film is considered unintelligible and pretentious. For what it’s worth, that is the exact description I would give to another Aronofsky film called The Fountain, so I feel like I can empathize even without having seen the film in question. What’s strange about Aronofsky’s filmography is he isn’t a director who exclusively makes inaccessible films. He’s not a David Lynch or a Charlie Kaufmann. He also made The Wrestler, Noah, and his most commercially successful film Black Swan. Black Swan was a success back when a film could make $300 million dollars purely on the premise of Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis making out. We used to have culture in this country. These movies are pretty standard albeit with distinct filmic storytelling. Aronofsky has leap frogged between whacky nonsense and traditional stuff throughout his career so you never know what you’re going to get next. It’s for that reason I consider Aronofsky one of the few genuinely exciting directors working today. He is clearly a crazy person who hits as much as he misses, but if nothing else is work is unique.

Compared to his past work, The Whale is most similar to Black Swan when it comes to the accessibility of its subject material and how the story is told. This movie is based on a play so there is an emphasis on dialogue, a consistent single location, and thankfully not a lot of opportunity for Aronofsky to do his whacky nonsense.

The most genius creative decision for The Whale is casting Brendan Fraser as its lead character. The reason this is a smart decision is because Fraser has led a life that inspires pity and sadness better than any other actor working today. Fraser has been out of the spotlight in Hollywood for a combination of factors that seem pretty tragic. In the early 2000s he was at the top of his career. He starred in The Mummy which made more than $400 million and its sequel made even more money which suggested Fraser was a bankable star. He had some other smaller successes with Bedazzled, Crash, and Journey to the Center of the Earth, but around 2004 Fraser’s career came to an abrupt end. From that point he was only cast in C-tier comedies and independent films and for a long time it seemed he simply was one of the many actors who had their 15 minutes of fame then disappeared.

It wasn’t until 2018 in the #MeToo era when Fraser was the subject of a lengthy feature piece in GQ entitled “Whatever Happened to Brendan Fraser?” In the piece, Fraser shares that his fall from stardom coincided with four pivotal events in his professional and personal life. The first was a sexual assault in 2003 from the head of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. Fraser chose not to speak out about it at the time and Fraser has said the event caused a sense of shame in himself because the assault seemed to be the result of his identity as a leading man who was often the buff, comedic, and shirtless hot guy. Following that event, Fraser threw himself into his work and this strained his family life which ultimately ended in divorce in 2009. Before the dissolution of his marriage, Fraser’s mother died in 2005 from cancer. He appeared in a press tour junket interview a few days after her death and the video of that interview went viral in a type of “sad Keanu” precursor but without any of the empathy. Around that time Fraser was actively courting the role of Superman for Superman Returns but he eventually lost the role to Brandon Routh. By the time Fraser made the third Mummy movie in 2008 he described himself as being “put together with tape and ice.” The movie was a critical and commercial failure and was later rebooted without Fraser attached to the project. Over the course of 5 years, Fraser’s life had collapsed. His identity as an actor gave him a sense of shame, his mother died, he was overworked, he was no longer a bankable star, and with his divorce he was committed to paying $600,000 in alimony and child support each year.

Since that article was published, the filmgoing public have rooted for a Fraser renaissance since it seemed like his career was unfairly cut short. He’s appeared in some smaller roles since 2018 when the piece in GQ was published, but oddly enough, Fraser’s commitment to The Whale is not a recent development. Aronofsky has been trying to make the film for more than a decade and said he decided to cast Fraser in the starring role when he saw the trailer for Journey to the End of the Night – a film that came out in 2006. Which means Fraser was cast even before his career came to an end. With all that said, I think Fraser’s involvement gives the film an added context that makes it much more impactful.

Premise

The Whale is about the story of Charlie – an English teacher who weighs more than 300 pounds. Charlie has secluded himself to a cheap apartment in rural Idaho and teaches his courses remotely through webinars. His only human contact is with a nurse named Liz who cares for him once a day. The film begins with Charlie having a mini heart attack and Liz tells Charlie his blood pressure is so high he could be dead by the end of the week. This dire prognosis leads Charlie to attempt to reconnect with his estranged daughter Ellie. Ellie is doing badly in school and Charlie offers to tutor her essay writing in exchange for having her visit him each day. In addition to Liz and Ellie, Charlie has a variety of interactions with a door-to-door Christian missionary who believes he was sent by God to help Charlie. The story takes place over the course of a week as Charlie spends each day getting a little bit closer to his predicted death.

Acting

This movie is getting buzz because of the involvement of Brendan Fraser and I believe this casting was an intelligent creative decision to make the film’s story have more impact. Charlie’s character only works if the audience feels sympathy for him and Fraser has effectively become the embodiment of a pitiful person whose life has fallen apart at no fault of his own. There is a similarity between Charlie’s situation and his undying optimism for life and Fraser’s real life situation and his act of optimism by choosing to portray this character after more than a decade away from the spotlight. The audience immediately feels a connection to Charlie’s character because it is so similar to the character Brendan Fraser we all know in some capacity due to his real-life story. This to me is the most you can hope for from acting in a film.

I frequently say on this channel that I don’t care about acting, but to the extent I do it is for circumstances like The Whale. Acting is at its best when a production discovers there is an individual in real life who closely portrays the reality of the character they are meant to depict. Everyone likes to pay attention to “leading stars” who are all generically good-looking, charismatic, and likable like real life superheroes we can worship for their superior genes. I’ve always been more interested in character actors. These are working professionals who embody an archetype that has existed throughout time. Someone like Stephen Tobolowsky capturing the most annoying person on the planet, or Benedict Wong’s self-serious deadpan to serve as a skeptic or comedic relief, or Michelle Rodriguez embodying the physically intimidating no-nonsense Latina. These actors are more than a role, they’re an archetype that is real. We know these people exist in life and these character actors embody them in their roles. When a movie has an archetype as its main character, the story becomes more than fiction. It’s not a generically likable star being written for maximum audience approval, it’s the entirety of that person in the role.

This can be accomplished with leading stars too if the casting director is paying attention. One of my favorite examples is in Gone Girl. The main character of that story is Nick Dunne – a man who doesn’t really like being married and has let himself go over a yearslong slump. Who better to play that role than Ben Affleck – a man with very public marital dissatisfaction and well-known frustrations with his career. Affleck was certainly one of the few actors in the industry who understood Dunne’s character and he did a phenomenal job in that role. On the inverse, this is why I’m so critical of casting decisions that seem to be the result of an actor chasing an award by playing a role they have no connection with whatsoever. I wasn’t a fan of Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street because whatever accomplishments he had in that performance… I never felt convinced he was the character. For that whole movie I wondered what could have been accomplished if it starred an actor who actually understood what it means to be an unhinged crazy person like a Joaquin Phoenix or a Mel Gibson. When an actor’s life brings some of their reality into the work of fiction, that elevates the film to a higher level. You can’t say the film is strictly fiction at that point because it incorporates the reality of the actor’s life. That’s the real magic of movies in general – bringing stories into reality.

Fraser isn’t actually a chronically obese English teacher, but his involvement as an actor with a career history that mirrors the pity we’re meant to feel for Charlie makes the film incredibly effective. We barely need five minutes with Charlie to feel for his character. The casting of Fraser sets The Whale up for success… which it definitely needs.

Stilted Writing

In the first ten minutes of The Whale I had to consciously acknowledge the writing in this movie is very stilted. I had to make that acknowledgement to myself because if I didn’t then I could’ve easily complained about it the entire time. I want to give the best example of this which is technically a spoiler because it happens very late into the movie but it doesn’t actually “spoil” anything. I don’t think your enjoyment of the movie will be tarnished if you know ahead of time this happens in the film.

Charlie teaches his classes through a webinar and he chooses to keep his camera off. Later in the film, he chooses to turn his camera on so his students can see what he looks like. He even goes through the effort to move his clunky laptop around his meaty abdomen and legs so they get the full picture. This entire sequence is so melodramatic and cringe worthy. It is the exact type of performative self-annihilation people partake on social media all the time, but it’s played with complete seriousness. It’s laughable.

There are a lot of silly moments in this film that fall on their face because the execution is contrived. The method of execution is one where it is obvious the scene is designed to perform for an audience rather than a convincing interaction between believable characters. I found myself so aware of my position as the audience that I experienced the emotion of the film to be desperate rather than sincere. I felt like the filmmaker was staring at the side of my face waiting to see my reaction. If I hadn’t decided to accept this fault of the film then it could’ve easily tanked my entire experience. I think a lot of the negative reviews for this film were unable to get past this flaw. It’s the type of stumble you can write an entire review about but I think it’s imprecise in assessing the quality of this film.

Brave sincerity

As many scenes as there are I could deride for bad writing there are just as many that were some of the most impactful gut punches for film this year. I attribute those successful moments to the bravery of this film’s emotional depth.

I was really concerned this movie would be the equivalent of a two-hour cloying platitude. I thought it would be 120 minutes of empty optimism like “people are amazing” or “life is worth it,” and other annoying self-serving refrains. The Whale is really not like that at all. This is a story that knows it is really in the depths of complex and tragic interpersonal relationships. In a way that evokes Aronofsky’s brilliance in Requiem for a Dream because he really understands the challenges for these characters.

Charlie is the best example of this emotional depth. His introduction suggests we should feel nothing but pity for him because his appearance and attitude is something that clearly inspires pity. As we get to know Charlie’s circumstance better, our interpretation of him becomes more complex because his situation is a mixture of personal faults, tragic circumstances, and self-destructive behavior. He is a combination of personality traits and personal actions that create a picture of someone who is complicated. You can’t pass an all-encompassing judgment on his character – positively or negatively – because you have to consider the context of his circumstance. Or maybe you can pass judgment but I wouldn’t recommend it. In other words, Charlie feels like a real person – more real than most characters in movies I’ve seen this year.

All of the characters are complex in this story and I found that to be the greatest achievement for this film. Some of the characters are more convincing and relatable than others, but generally I found my investment in this film’s world rewarded. One of the best examples of this is Charlie’s relationship with his daughter Ellie. I initially thought Ellie was annoying. She seemed like she was written to be clever with a tinge of personal angst, but I didn’t see her in a positive light at all – she was just annoying. I fixated on my response to Ellie because it seemed so alien. Why would they make a character that is annoying? Did they know they did this? Was it on purpose? I actually had to check myself on this. Because I realized I was trapped in this view that film is supposed to be entertainment where there are thrills and maybe occasional discomfort but never outright dissatisfaction. I was trapped in this view that film shouldn’t have annoying characters because they’re annoying. But there is a point to Ellie’s personality being so grating. She is the inverse of Charlie – a character that begins with a lot of sympathy and lessens over time. Ellie is a character we originally dislike but come to understand better over the course of the film. After I saw The Whale, I realized this tactic of playing with the audience’s relationship with a character to build empathy for them is something that’s been missing from film – at least for me. I genuinely can’t remember a recent example of a film with an annoying character other than Wayne Knight in Jurassic Park. I’m sure there’s a more recent example, but I can’t think of one.

This is what I’m referring to when I say The Whale has emotional depth. Your relationship with these characters will never be in the same place from beginning to end. You may end up in the same spot, but you’ll be there with more context on the character. These moments where you get exposed to the full context of a character and you can feel your relationship with them change on the fly – that’s when The Whale is at its best. I think it is a unique strength for this film given the current climate of filmmaking which is largely hollow and entertainment oriented.

 Closing thoughts

The Whale has a lot of highs and lows but ultimately I liked this movie a lot. I would give it a 4 out of 5. The stilted writing is certainly a challenge you’ll need to overcome – or maybe you won’t notice it. If that’s not something you can deal with that it’s very easy to make fun of this movie, but I think that would be doing it a disservice. The Whale is a complex film. I can’t call it an outright tragedy or optimistic or anything. It’s complicated. I found exploring the complexities of these characters to be thrilling and if that’s what you’re into – I think it’s worth your time.

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