Review by John Larkin
As someone who has struggled with weight their entire life, any film that touches upon the subject becomes immediately compelling to me. My all time favorite film that explores the subject, FATSO (1980) starred Dom Deluise and was the only film Anne Bancroft ever directed. It’s surprisingly funny and sweet but still packs plenty of realistic pathos and has reverence for the struggle.
Some 40 odd years later comes THE WHALE, directed by Darren Aronofsky and based off a play written by a very physically fit Idaho hailing playwright named Samuel D. Hunter, about a 600 pound man looking for some redemption in his life before the heart attack hits that finally does him in.
I can’t help but always ask myself what inspires one to write the story they pursue. I have found that many a lauded playwright have no real soulful connection to the material that they explore and simply find some subject they think will be dramatically compelling and exploit it in a pretentious way. I call it “empty playwright syndrome.”
Empty playwright syndrome usually has the characters in the work delivering absurd diatribes and having conversations about things that to them are deeply profound but would mean nothing to the average human being. In the case of THE WHALE, Brendan Fraser’s character Charlie finds his deep profound obsession in a portion of an essay his daughter wrote on MOBY DICK when she was 10. REALLY? We do know Charlie is a lover of literature - Charlie teaches a college writing course virtually on zoom but pretends the camera is broken so his students don't see what he looks like. It just seems like a very arbitrary subject for a main character to connect so deeply too. THE WHALE is clearly a metaphorical title, but it's also a little tasteless, as one can't help but think of it as offensive labeling of an overweight person.
THE WHALE never explores Charlie's love for food or battle with food addiction and instead focuses on the melodramatic family fallout that occurred earlier in his life. Charlie is gay and he left his wife and daughter when his daughter was only eight. His daughter resents him horribly but still strives to connect with him, even if only so she can get some money from him after graduating high school. Charlie became the way he was after the trauma of losing his partner to cancer. His days are spent being visited by his nurse friend played by Hong Chau who yells at him for putting her through the torture of watching him slowly eat himself to death.
The film is jam packed with clichés and a bombardment of one overwrought argument scene after the other. The score in particular is off the mark. It would have been more effective with some moody tones instead of anything orchestral. Like other play-to-film adaptations it features scenes that feel like ancillary filler just to break up the monotony of staying in the same location with the same character the entire length of the film.
About halfway through I realized that we had hardly seen him really binge eat. How does this guy get so big if he’s just talking and teaching all day? It wasn’t long after that thought occurred that the film veered into an intense “bing eating montage” with Charlie, among other things, dousing an entire bottle of ranch dressing on his pizza, furiously typing away on his computer with pizza grease smeared all over his face. The score is particularly overwrought during this sequence making the whole thing more comical than intense.
Despite the tackiness of the filmmaking, Brendan Fraser is still the highlight of the film. He brings genuine heart and humanity to the role. Unfortunately it’s within a film that doesn’t quite work. Right before Covid hit in 2020 I saw him at an Italian restaurant in Connecticut with his youngest son. I told him I was a big fan and he was very gracious, though not looking to draw attention to himself.
As a huge lifelong Brendan Fraser fan I am still rooting hard for him this awards season and I champion his ongoing “Brenassaince”, though THE WHALE is an unpleasant experience that I would be hesitant to watch again.