“The Whale” was a short-lived off Broadway play, set in one room, with a six hundred pound elephant at its center.
Now “The Whale” is a movie, set in one room, with six hundred pound elephant and such low lighting I started to think my cataracts had returned.
In the hype leading up to its release, “The Whale” has been heralded as Fraser’s second coming as if he were Daniel Day Lewis returning from retirement. He is not that, although his performance is lovely and moving. That can’t be denied.
But it is also one note in the sense that the character he plays is doomed from the start. He is very ill, and soon will die one way or another. We get that.
Fraser’s Charlie has a daughter (Sadie Sink) from a failed marriage (Samantha Morton plays his ex). Apparently, Charlie is also gay. His longtime lover, Alan, for whom he left the wife, has been dead for a while, and his death has forced Charlie to eat himself into a coma, so to speak. Now Charlie teaches an online course in English composition. On Zoom, he closes his camera off so his students can’t see that he’s a mountain of flesh. His only lifeline is a visiting nurse (Hong Chau) who acquiesces to his demand not to go to the hospital. There’s also a young Mormon guy (Ty Simpkins) who shows up out of nowhere.
So why the whale of the title? Charlie, who is constantly almost dying from choking to death on his food or from actual congestive heart failure, keeps re-reading a book report about “Moby Dick” by who we think is a former student.
Soon, we learn how the nurse is connected to Charlie, and who wrote the book review, and we are in “This is Us” territory of cheap sentiment that is being offered in place of real drama. This is the world of cloying TV, where the audience will burst into tears later when they realize all the cheap connections. Back in 2012 it didn’t work off Broadway, where “The Whale” played for a month until it was harpooned. And it doesn’t work now even as Sadie Sink tries to break through this mawkishness. But there’s not much she can do with the stereotypical estranged juvenile delinquent teen who comes looking for a father she hates.
Darren Aronofsky has made some great movies like “Black Swan” and “Requiem for a Dream.” He’s made some mistakes, too, like “Mother!” and “Noah.” This one falls in between. He does his best with the material but doesn’t open up the story, or expand it, or show us Charlie in flashbacks, even to a better time. “The Whale” is claustrophobic, maybe intentionally, but even the movie “Room” left the room sometimes.
I admire the affection some bloggers and reviewers have for Fraser, who was a young star in the 90s in teen films and then in “The Mummy” series. As I recall, when he was in “The Quiet American” in 2001 and “Crash” in 2004, there was a moment when it looked like he’d made the transition into adult stuff. So his return now is filled with nostalgic hopefulness. But there’s only so much he can do here beside drag around a 300 pound fat suit. He does that with grace, which is saying a lot.