“What are you sorry about?”
The Whale is a film that’s packed full of feeling. Sadness and regret, hatred and sorrow, love and longing. It’s all in there front and center, and yet I was never moved by this picture. I watched it twice just to be certain that I hadn’t missed anything, that nothing had gone over my head. In fact, a rewatch only made me scrutinize it more, and highlighted how poorly the script was written. Two great performances and two very average ones can’t save The Whale from beaching itself in heavy-handed, forceful pathos. I so badly wanted to love this movie. As is, I can barely even say that I liked it.
Charlie (Brendan Fraser) hides away in his small apartment. Walls are lined with books he’s read, drawers are full of candy he’s bound to eat, and little light makes its way in through windows. One room is kept locked. He teaches online writing courses from the discomfort of his couch, using a laptop with a camera turned off. Most nights dinner is delivery from Gambino’s; money is left in the mailbox and the pizzas and subs are left outside. And early on, through a script formatted in the structure of a week, we’re told Charlie likely doesn’t have much time left on this Earth. He sweats profusely, wheezes constantly, and spends most of his time sedentary. That’s because Charlie is morbidly obese and moving is a monumental feat in and of itself. With a blood pressure reading of 238 over 134 and a heart on the brink of failure, he wants to right wrongs while he still can. While he still has time. When we feel empty it’s easiest to fill the gaping hole from the outside in.
Coming and going is the frustrated Liz (Hong Chau, who steals every scene she’s in, and for my money gives the film’s best performance), a nurse whose deep ties to Charlie are slowly unveiled as his health issues progress. One knock at the door introduces us to the proselytizing Thomas (Ty Simpkins), trying to spread the good word of the lord. And then there’s the slam of the door and the sharp cut to Ellie (Sadie Sink), Charlie’s estranged and troubled daughter. She’s failing out of school, Charlie wants to reconnect while he still can, and their transactional relationship briefly starts up again. He’ll help her pass assignments so long as she writes him something honest. And she’s brutal, only to the chagrin of the eternally optimistic Charlie, thrilled to see her hatred in haiku form. Maybe there’s a piece of him in her, justifying why so much of his mind is enveloped by her. That seems to be the usual parent-child dynamic.
As is the case with so many stage to screen adaptations, The Whale suffers from relying on words over imagery, and while director Darren Aronofsky does break from form a few times to experience emotions visually, this film is all stagnant tell and very little creative show. The production design is intricate but unexplored; I often wondered why the camera was so fixated on the main character and didn’t use close-ups on spaces to help convey through visuals what’s drawn out through clumsy dialogue. Lenny Abrahamson was able to traverse miles more in Room than Aronofsky disappointingly ever does here.
I can’t imagine anyone else than Fraser playing the lead, and while the role is deeply honest and authentic (I know from experience how hard it is to watch a loved one’s body deteriorate before your eyes), the writing still felt manipulative and exploitive, as if it was trying to deliver forced tears instead of raw emotions. Sadie Sink is a great young actress who has to play a one note character. And while Ty Simpkins is good here, his character also feels extraneous, adding to a run time that’s already too long for a can of soup this condensed. Then there’s Hong Chau, an actress who embodies and emotes all of the feelings I initially mentioned, and who keeps the film from falling in on itself; she’s the only person who doesn’t feel like a broadly brushed caricature. The Whale is great publicity for Fraser’s comeback, but it’s not a great movie either. To be honest, with an awkward score that ultimately tries to sell the story as a harrowing thriller, I’m still questioning if it’s even good.
“Do you ever get the feeling that people are incapable of not caring?”
Rating: 3 out of 5