Tuesday, December 20, 2022

‘Whale’: Misery that doesn’t love company


A vast expanse of artificial flesh encases Brendan Fraser in The Whale, enabling the 54-year-old actor to play Charlie, a man who has compulsively eaten his way to a monumental 600 pounds. 
 Not surprisingly, Charlie is self-conscious about his weight: He teaches on-line writing courses at a local college but doesn't allow his students to see him. He keeps the camera on his computer off.
  Charlie's immobilizing bloat began when his gay lover committed suicide, a double tragedy because Charlie had left his wife (Samantha Morton) and daughter (Sadie Sink) to pursue what he expected to be the love of his life.
  Living alone in a cluttered apartment in a small town in Idaho, Charlie is visited by Liz (Hong Chau), a nurse, friend, and the sister of Charlie’s dead lover.
  Liz starts the dramatic clock ticking: If Charlie doesn't head to a hospital, his death from congestive heart failure is imminent, Liz tells him.
  Intent on self-destruction, Charlie refuses to budge. He relies on Liz to bring him hefty sub-sandwiches and has large pizzas delivered to his door. He leaves cash and tips in the mailbox so that the delivery kid doesn't see him.
   Much has been made of Fraser's performance. Many think he has put himself on an Oscar track. Some of this has to do with Fraser's previous work in movies such as Encino Man, George of the Jungle, and several Mummy movies, not exactly Oscar bait.
    Oscar nomination or not, Fraser deserves credit for creating a character who could have been little more than a gimmick. Flashes of humor peek through Charlie's bulk, assuring us that he retains his humanity. Maybe he's just a decent guy who lost control of himself.
    But two hours of watching Charlie wallow in self-recrimination isn't enough to fill a movie and that's where the trouble starts.
     As the supporting cast arrives, Aronofsky cranks up the unpleasantness.
     Charlie's visitors aren't exactly fully developed characters; they're illustrations of Charlie's problems: An estranged former wife (Morton); an aggrieved teenage daughter (Sink) who spews venom; and a missionary (Ty Simpkins) who believes faith and fervor can save Charlie.
     Put another way, The Whale is one sour movie, full of harsh encounters that can feel as repellent as Charlie's compulsive eating, which includes buckets of fried chicken and as many candy bars as his mouth can hold.
     The movie's title, by the way, doesn't refer to Charlie. When he's agitated, Charlie recites a passage from a cherished essay on Moby-Dick, repeating it as if it were a prayer. 
    Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan, and The Wrestler) peers into the waning days of an emotionally wounded man whose life has been sadly diminished. 
    Fair enough, but The Whale sometimes feels more like an intrusion than a movie, invaded privacy wearing the mask of drama.
    Toward the end, Aronofsky tries to give Charlie, and presumably, the audience, a redemptive lift. It's too late.
    Put another way: I think I was supposed to root for Charlie to be saved; I just wanted him to be left alone.

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