Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated? If, perhaps, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences were to award a prize for the clunkiest film of the year, it would almost certainly go to The Whale.
ere is a film about chronically annoying people who say and do mean things to one another – and themselves – without ever considering the consequences. It’s loud and empty-headed. It has nothing interesting to say about anyone or anything in it.
Stare too hard at Darren Aronofsky’s vapid, manipulative picture, and it begins to fall in on itself. Is this really the film that warranted a six-minute standing ovation at its Venice premiere?
All of this, you may say, is irrelevant. We are here for the beloved Brendan Fraser who, after years in the wilderness, is back in business, with an Oscar nomination under his belt. Good for him.
There is, at present, a peculiar argument that Fraser’s jam-packed CV places him among the giants of cinema. Let’s not lose the run of ourselves. We can’t go around pretending that George of the Jungle and The Mummy were cinematic masterpieces.
But yes, Fraser is one of the good guys, and the man can act. He brings warmth, charisma and vitality to even the most thankless roles (including his turn in Bedazzled). It hardly needs to be said he is the best thing about Aronofsky’s latest. But the film around him is terrible.
We begin – and end – in our protagonist’s flat. Charlie (Fraser) is in an awful state. Weighing an almost impossible 42 stone, he is essentially imprisoned in his own body, and can barely remove himself from the couch.
It’s likely his heart will soon give up, and – though his carer Liz (Hong Chau) advises against it – Charlie is keen to reconnect with his estranged teenage daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink).
What, you may ask, happened to Charlie? His partner died, and he turned to food to ease the pain. Things got out of hand, and nobody was around to notice. His ex-wife Mary (Samantha Morton) wouldn’t allow him to see their daughter. (Charlie left her for a man, and Mary never got over it.)
There may yet be time to fix things, and Ellie’s arrival coincides with that of a Christian missionary (Ty Simpkins’s Thomas) looking to save Charlie’s soul.
Indeed, Aronofsky’s film is chained to a single setting, and therein lies its trickiest problem. The Whale is, indeed, based on a play by Samuel D Hunter, and the acclaimed playwright adapts his own text here. Fair enough. The issue is that some of our performers seem to think they’re on a stage. Aronofsky, too, directs this creaky, unimaginative display like a Broadway melodrama.
The lights go down to let us know when scenes have ended. Shouty supporting players knock on doors before they enter rooms. Most of them employ that angry, march-towards-the-audience thing that theatre actors do whenever they’re required to tackle big, emotional scenes. Add to this a mawkish, overbearing score, and you have yourself a drippy, big-screen soap opera.
Hunter’s watery screenplay occasionally dabbles with serious themes and topics. Grief, self-harm, divorce, America’s rotten healthcare system – it’s all up for grabs. Things get a little Biblical around the middle, too.
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Take a shot of whiskey every time he uses the term ‘amazing’ – you’ll be half-cut within the hour
How odd, then, that for such a yappy, noisy tale, The Whale struggles to justify its existence. It’s shallow, tedious stuff, and Aronofsky overdoes it with grim, repetitive shots of Charlie gorging on fatty foods.
Hammy, heavy-handed, and – in the case of Fraser’s teammates – outrageously over-acted, this muddled, superficial film doesn’t seem to know what it’s about. Somehow, Fraser (performing inside a prosthetic suit) mines slivers of gold from a sketchy, half-drawn character.
The real magic is in the eyes, and Fraser’s are working over-time here. But Charlie is a bit of an enigma. He’s supposed to be an English professor (he teaches online, sans webcam) but his vocabulary is a tad limited. Take a shot of whiskey every time he uses the term ‘amazing’ – you’ll be half-cut within the hour.
The others are impossible to root for. Ellie is a bad egg who takes pleasure in the misfortune of others. The missionary lad is selfish. Liz needs to stop yelling at her patients. We don’t have the time or the space to recall the irredeemable storytelling crimes committed in the closing act.
The Whale is not Aronofsky’s worst film – that honour belongs to Mother! – but it’s probably his clumsiest. Fraser deserves better.
In cinemas February 3rd; Cert 16