Combustible Celluloid Review - The Whale (2022), Samuel D. Hunter, based on his own play, Darren Aronofsky, Brendan Fraser, Sadie Sink, Hong Chau, Ty Simpkins, Samantha Morton, Sathya Sridharan
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With: Brendan Fraser, Sadie Sink, Hong Chau, Ty Simpkins, Samantha Morton, Sathya Sridharan
Written by: Samuel D. Hunter, based on his own play
Directed by: Darren Aronofsky
MPAA Rating: R for language, some drug use and sexual content
Running Time: 117
Date: 12/09/2022

The Whale (2022)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)


By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Like Darren Aronofsky's other movies, this dark drama doesn't shy away from the troubling realities of the character's situation, but what lingers are its deep wells of tenderness and compassion.

Charlie (Brendan Fraser) teaches English classes online while living with severe obesity. (He pretends his laptop camera is broken so that they can't see him.) He never leaves his apartment, orders all his food and receives occasional visits and care from his friend Liz (Hong Chau), a nurse.

When he learns that his blood pressure is dangerously, lethally high, he refuses to go to the hospital, and instead devotes his energy to re-connecting with his brilliant, estranged, and deeply troubled teen daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink). Meanwhile, a young missionary, Thomas (Ty Simpkins), happens upon Charlie and decides that he wants to help save his soul.

The Whale launches with a shocking, even horrific sequence (Charlie's masturbating interrupted by crippling chest pains), initially casting Charlie in a pathetic light, but as the story progresses over the course of a week, we change our minds. We begin to see who he really is: loving, intelligent, sensitive, and an undying optimist.

Indeed, we eventually learn that the title is not a cruel nickname for its hero, but rather a reference to Moby Dick, and a cherished essay that Charlie reads and quotes to himself in times of despair.

Fraser's performance is of course enhanced by makeup and prosthetics, but his work is unfailingly powerful. He is required to wheeze and grunt and groan as he drags around his bulk, as well as conveying the agony of it all, but his bright eyes gleam with hope. Playing opposite him, Hong Chau is equally brilliant (she wins us over by shouting at him and then tickling him).

The screenplay by Samuel D. Hunter — adapted from his play — is filled with fascinating discussions about love and literature and truth and faith (Aronofsky has grappled with themes of faith in much of his work, especially Noah and Mother!).

Aronofsky's direction is skilled but not showy, closer to The Wrestler than his other movies, and focused mainly on character and performance. The Whale flows beautifully, even if it sometimes feels a little stagebound and cutesy. (For a recluse, Charlie is never without someone to talk to.) It's a movie that twists our preconceptions, turning a "disgusting" character into an amazing one.

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