'The Whale' - Brendan Fraser's brilliant queer comeback

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Tuesday December 13, 2022
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Brendan Fraser in 'The Whale' (A24 Films)
Brendan Fraser in 'The Whale' (A24 Films)

Brendan Fraser's Charlie in Darren Aronofsky's "The Whale" (A24) may not only be the year's best performance by a male actor, but may later be judged as one of the decade's top master classes in acting. The film, however, is problematic though some of the criticism has been unduly harsh. This hauntingly sad story, like its main character, in free-fall, invites audiences to have empathy for a flawed man haunted by his failings and regrets, who seeks love and a reason for his existence in his final days.

At times difficult to watch because of its gut-wrenching honesty, though there are humorous interludes, "The Whale" finally breaks your heart, not out of pity, but because we glimpse a soul's light flickering underneath mounds of pain. Charlie is desperate to do something worthwhile with his life, as he seeks grace and reconciliation with his tortured past.

Morbidly obese 600-pound Charlie (Fraser) is a gay English teacher in Idaho, who teaches by Zoom with his webcam shut off, claiming technical difficulties, so his students can't see him, but urges them to "write something honest." He lives alone in a cluttered one-bedroom apartment as a depressed shut-in, though throughout the two-hour film he will receive a steady stream of visitors.

His best friend and devoted caretaker Liz (Hong Chau, "The Menu"), is a nurse and brother of Charlie's late partner Alan, who committed suicide. She informs him that his dangerously high blood pressure —coupled with congestive heart failure— gives him at most a week to live. She urges him to go to a hospital. He refuses. She acts as an enabler by giving him a meatball sub to eat right after her dire diagnosis.

Hong Chau in 'The Whale' (A24 Films)  

Desperate deliveries
A young man (Ty Simpkins) from a local evangelical church, New Life (that apparently made life hell for both Alan and Liz) knocks on the door and tries to save Charlie's soul before he dies.

Charlie promises money to his estranged, bitterly angry (almost to the point of bullying) 17-year-old daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink, "Stranger Things") because he urgently wants to be reconciled with her before he dies. Then his furious ex-wife Mary (Samantha Morton) appears, whom he abandoned for his great love Alan, one of his graduate students. Despite his betrayal she still has a residue of affection towards Charlie.

Finally, a delivery man nightly brings him two large pizzas, which Charlie devours along with buckets of KFC chicken like a heroin addict injecting his drug. His guilt about Alan's death and deserting eight-year-old Ellie, as well as sorrow for what might have been, has led to his prolonged suicide through compulsive binge-eating.

Based on his own semi-autobiographical stage drama, gay scriptwriter Samuel Hunter —as evidenced from the above brief plot description in this overwrought screenplay— is dealing with a myriad of ponderous topics such as grief, death, suicide, abandonment, religious abuse and intolerance, trauma, addiction, alcoholism, and remorse. This all creates a mass of contradictions that are never really tied together or given any resolution, with lots of blame-shifting.

There's a kind of perverse voyeurism as we watch Charlie's almost masochistic self-destruction while he asks several times in a hopeful rhetorical flourish, "Do you ever get the feeling that people are incapable of not caring?"

Sadie Sink in 'The Whale' (A24 Films)  

Race against time
Director Darren Aronofsky is trying to balance a sense of claustrophobia that doesn't intimidate the audience but still conveys that Charlie is trapped, even imprisoned in his apartment. Amazingly, he manages to make that single room and a character marooned on a couch cinematic, by creating suspense as we experience Charlie's race against time in his quest for salvation.

Charlie can barely walk. Everything he does requires monumental effort, conveyed by the one hundred pounds of latex material. It never looks like he's wearing a suit (Aronofsky objects to the fat suit phrase, calling it makeup and prosthetics, all done digitally), but it rather becomes an extension of Fraser's portrayal of the physical and emotional weight oppressing Charlie.

Even if a more heavyset actor had been chosen for Fraser's role, they'd still have needed some prosthetics to reach the 600-pound threshold, so the critique about a fat suit seems picayune.

However, because Fraser hasn't been a bankable star for almost two decades, it's a fair question to ask why a lesser-known LGBTQ actor couldn't have been cast as Charlie, despite Fraser's tour de force performance.

Some critics accuse the film of fat-phobia, especially since some of the characters, especially Ellie in her rage, make nasty comments about Charlie's corpulence. While the movie is brutal in showing the health challenges of being so obese, it constantly points to Charlie's humanity, as a beautiful soul trapped in a failing body. Thus, it never fat-shames Charlie and its aim is to establish a sympathetic rapport with the audience.

The title refers not to Charlie's weight, but an essay (the author identified later as part of a surprise ending) on the white whale in Melville's novel "Moby-Dick," which provides comfort to Charlie when he's undergoing some emotional or medical crisis.

But Charlie conveys a tender heart, sly wit, vulnerability, an ethereal graciousness despite his size, and a belief in the goodness of other people, especially Ellie, even when she screams, "Look at what an awful person I've become because of you."

Aronofsky, who has developed a flair for resurrecting moribund careers, such as Ellen Burstyn in "Requiem for a Dream," and Mickey O'Rourke in "The Wrestler," has done it once again for Fraser, the frontrunner for the Best Actor Oscar and the recipient of a six-minute standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival.

One wishes the film was as great as Fraser's fearless raw emotional performance, but we can forgive many of its deficiencies because "The Whale" manages to drive home poignantly the human search to love the unlovable and "to remind us that all the promise of compassion and redemption is there in every human existence." Charlie's quest for transcendence echoes every queer person's struggle for dignity and respect.


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