The bulk of this season’s awards movies are relatively staid and fairly similar-looking, and then there’s The Whale, Darren Aronofsky’s food-based Leaving Las Vegas starring Brendan Fraser as a terminally obese online college English professor. That The Whale’s protagonist looks like a live-action, painstakingly realistic version of the fat gamer from South Park and is played by the guy from Bedazzled and Monkeybone feels like the setup for a joke. Only The Whale‘s joke is that it’s not joking, at all. Taking a joke and playing it straight seems to be most of its reason for existing.
The Whale is not a comedy, a farce, or even an Alexander Payne-style suburban dramedy of pathos. If Darren Aronofsky has proven anything throughout his career, it’s that he’s not locked into any one style or genre, waffling wildly from straightforward realism (The Wrestler) to almost abstract experimentation (mother!). The Whale is more like a Shakespearian tragedy, with complex, finely-sketched characters whose motives are often up for interpretation, all orbiting a former teen heartthrob acting his heart out through what looks like 400 pounds of oatmeal stuffed into a series of clear hefty bags. One thing Aronofsky movies all seem to share: despite their intellectual arthouse trappings, he always also embraces schlock and spectacle. See: Fraser’s giant Ludacris video hands here.
The Whale both transcends the stuntiness of Brendan-Fraser-in-a-giant-fat-suit and is inextricable from it. It’s not about that sight gag, but it doesn’t really work without it. The Whale feels like a play, partly because it was one — adapted from Samuel D. Hunter’s 2012 stage show and set in Moscow, Idaho where Hunter was raised. Normally I hate movies that make me feel like I’m watching a play, which always feels like wastes of a visual medium, giving you the sense of being trapped in a room when the entire point is to create the illusion that you’re not trapped in a room.
That’s why a little “movie magic” is so important to The Whale, which is both about a shut-in and consists almost entirely of a single location — Charlie’s moldy gym sock of an apartment, through which the other characters pass through. That it depicts this sagging goiter of a man, artificially embiggened through complex prosthetics, offers a necessary element of the fantastic to cut the otherwise dreary realism, not to mention the expected dog-and-pony awards-season show of glamorous actors dressing down in working-class pantomime. Filmmakers, and especially Darren Aronofsky, love the kind of self-imposed technical challenge turning Brendan Fraser into a 600-pound man presents, and the obvious glee with which he shoots it is infectious, even in the midst of an overtly dour story.
Charlie teaches online English courses, instructing Zoom grids of college students in the fine arts of essay structure while pretending his own webcam doesn’t work to shield them from his slovenly corpulence. He knows his physical form alone is a distraction. His blood pressure is 238 over 135, a sign of his worsening congestive heart failure. In the first scene, a door-to-door missionary played by Ty Simpkins finds Charlie moaning from chest pains and Charlie makes the boy read from a book report about Moby Dick to calm him. This Moby Dick essay, it seems, exemplifies for Charlie the kind of genuine sentiment he exhorts his students to strive for. “The Whale” being a bit of a double entendre.
The missionary kid, Thomas, becomes a supporting player, along with Liz (the always amazing Hong Chau), Charlie’s nurse friend who has unsuccessfully begged Charlie to go to the hospital for so long that she has essentially given up. Thomas thinks he can save Charlie; Liz knows he can’t. Charlie is depressed, naturally, having lost his boyfriend some years back and estranged from his daughter (Ellie, played by Sadie Sink) who shows up later in the film, and ends up being the most interesting character.
A 600-pound man surrounded by empty pizza boxes and fried chicken buckets begging a missionary to read him a child’s essay about Moby Dick, again, sounds like a joke, the imagery heavily reminiscent of A Confederacy Of Dunces, not to mention Barney’s short film for the Springfield Film Festival on The Simpsons. Yet Aronofsky’s project is to build sympathy for Charlie, not make fun of him. There’s a moment in one of my favorite sketches from I Think You Should Leave, the one where Tim Robinson’s character takes an adults-only ghost tour and gets bounced because he keeps asking about horse cocks and cum shots. At the end, Robinson’s defeated character trudges out to his mom’s waiting car and as he opens the door, she asks “So, did you make any new friends?”
It’s a perfect button, but also a tiny moment when one of the funniest sketches of all time becomes genuinely sad. Taking a joke and finding the pathos in it seems to be the crux of The Whale.
And who better to do that than Brendan Fraser? Not even a giant suit of dangling skin and arbitrary body hair can disguise the sadness in his sparkling blue eyes, or the optimism. It’s one of those perfect syntheses of character and public personae that only come around every so often, like Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, Matthew McConaughey in Magic Mike, or Simon Rex in Red Rocket, where how Fraser acts is inextricable from who he is and how we know him.
I don’t think The Whale is quite as good as those movies. That the fat guy is fat because he’s depressed and expresses his depression through binge eating is a little predictable, and all the foods he eats feel like a little like a Hollywood locavore’s idea of yucky poor people foods (fried chicken, pizza, meatball subs… you can imagine Moby tweaking his weird little nipples in horror/pleasure at all the grease, while his personal chef prepares him a cucumber enchirito). Charlie’s estranged wife, played by Samantha Morton, feels both underwritten and obviously English. Charlie’s goals for his students and his purpose as a teacher seem intended to be a central theme, but feel a little like an afterthought (not to mention that the movie vastly overestimates how much online English professors earn).
Yet Aronofsky, for all his arthouse trappings, has always had a firm grasp of movie magic and how to apply it, and The Whale‘s ending is a perfect example. I don’t know that I’ll be thinking about The Whale in two months but it certainly made me smile.