The tragedy and wonder of movies is that it’s not just what they’re about that matters, it’s What they are about what they are about. In Darren Aronofsky The whale—in competition at the 79th Venice Film Festival— Brendan Fraser stars as Charlie, a man who has given up on life, which in turn affects how and what he eats. He orders takeout pizza every night and finds solace in big, messy sandwiches and buckets of fried chicken. He has drawers full of chocolate bars that he dips into while grading papers; he’s a writing teacher who teaches exclusively online, with the camera off so his students can’t see him. This is because Charlie is undeniably obese: he can’t get around without a walker or wheelchair, and getting in and out of bed would be impossible without a ceiling-mounted pull-up bar. In fact, he never leaves the house, not even to get medical attention. He doesn’t have insurance, so he relies on his closest and only friend, Liz (Hong Chau, in a brilliant and bracing performance), who, luckily, is a nurse and also has a knack for stopping in the dark. right moment. right moment. On one of those visits, after Charlie has had some sort of seizure, she takes his blood pressure: it’s 238 over 134. She urges him to go to the hospital; he refuses, claiming that he doesn’t have the money.
This is the story of a person in deep pain, which means that his impulses are honorable. (It’s adapted from a play by Samuel D. Hunter.) And the movie is incredibly moving at times, thanks to Fraser’s polished and sad performance. Fraser wore a wetsuit to play the role, which has prompted some critical comment online. But for better or worse, this is a movie about a man who finds himself in a dire situation, and to read it as a parable of body acceptance would be missing the point. It is a drama about how pain can twist our lives out of control, a story that urges sympathy for its main character. Both goals are noble and decent.
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But that doesn’t The whale a great movie, or even a particularly good one. Aronofsky is one of those directors who incites fierce defensiveness in some and outright derision in others, but hardly anyone is neutral about him. His latest film, the 2017 Crazytown Terrified Wife Fantasy Mother! it was for some a tortured and pointless spectacle, for others a warning about the potential cruelty of the creative impulse. Her 2010 crazy ballerina saga Black Swan it was either a sequined piece of stupidity that was impossible to take seriously, or a warning about the potential cruelty of the creative impulse. Are you seeing a pattern here?
The whale, at least it’s a different kind of movie for Aronofsky, who has managed to tear the camera’s gaze away from his own belly button. Still, there’s a lot of “look at me” bravado in the overly monotonous approach of his. Shot by his frequent collaborator Matthew Libatique, the film has a dank, dishwasher-esque look to it, to represent Charlie’s desperation, the total lack of light in his life, of course. Charlie’s body is often constrained by the frame, just to make sure we really understand how constrained his life is. When he hears somber, flute-like music on the soundtrack, he won’t be surprised if the needle on his pathos detector strays into the red. There are also times when Aronofsky leans too far into the sweat stains, front and back, that stain Charlie’s T-shirts, or the grease around his lips when he tears up food. Aronosfky is walking a fine line between compassion and exploitation here. Even if he means well, he still skips that line from time to time.
Sadie Sink in ‘The Whale’
Niko Tavernise—Palouse Rights LLC.
But sometimes an actor can help minimize a director’s shortcomings, and that’s what Fraser does here. Charlie is an extremely kind, intelligent and sensitive person who has been undone by grief. He was married once, and the story’s dramatic stakes are raised when his estranged teenage daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink), shows up. He hasn’t done it spontaneously: Charlie hasn’t seen her in years and longed to be in touch with her. But he left her and her mother (played by an uncharacteristically diminutive, pinched-looking Samantha Morton) when Ellie was only eight years old, and neither of them have forgiven him, especially since she left them for a man, the love of her life. who has since died.
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Another character, a fresh-faced door-to-door missionary played by Ty Simpkins, has a tenuous connection to the circumstances that caused Charlie’s partner to die. All of these people converge on Charlie’s small apartment just as he is enduring, or clinging to, the last days of his life. Charlie’s pain, and what he sees as the mistakes he’s made in his life, have filled him with anxiety and guilt, and the only way he can cope with those feelings is to work his way through them, even more. beyond the point where you know your excess weight is killing you. His compulsion is a kind of suicide pact he’s made with himself, and he’s locked in a complicated cycle: his weight gain seems to have made him more depressed and less able to cope, a condition he self-medicates by eating. (The title of the film is a reference to moby dick, the subject of an essay that Charlie loves and returns to again and again for solace).
However, the goal of Fraser’s performance is to see the person as opposed to just the body. Ellie is, as her mother correctly points out at one point, a really horrible teenager, although her father only sees her intelligence and honesty. She keeps using the adjective “amazing” to describe her, and the more she uses it, the more we believe it, though her behavior continues to reinforce our initial impression. At one point, she demands that her father stand up and walk towards her without assistance, a seemingly simple task that is completely beyond him: she is horrible when she falls to the ground.
Charlie is a bit of a pushover, overly eager to see the good in others, even when unable to recognize his own excellent qualities. Early in the film, Liz tells Charlie that he will die of congestive heart failure in a few days if she doesn’t seek treatment, which she, of course, refuses to do. The mechanics of this story demand that others must be redeemed, even if it is too late for Charlie to be saved. You can predict the gist of the movie’s ending, if not its details, from the beginning.
But Fraser, always a wonderful actor and one who hasn’t had the career he deserves, defies the predictability of the film’s story arc. He shows us Charlie’s self-pity, and It allows make it annoying. There are so many ways this guy is just a bummer; his self-destruction is, at least in part, intertwined with his self-centeredness. Fraser doesn’t just give us permission to exasperate this character; he guides us directly to those feelings.
And yet, to look into his eyes is to see a person who is wishing to die, even as he wishes he had the will to live. I’m not sure it’s possible to watch this flawed movie, which moves too complacently in its own gloomy environment, and I don’t wish I could reach out to Charlie, to find the right thing to say, to help without judgment. It almost seems as if Charlie, in his kindness, is consoling us for our own feelings of futility. But really, that’s Fraser at work, not telling us what to feel, but making sure he’s okay. a feel.
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