There’s also going to be some excellent think pieces about what’s already become one of the most divisive films of the year, “The Whale.” Darren Aronofsky’s latest is being debated even before most people have seen it because of its subject matter and how much practically everyone is rooting for star Brendan Fraser to have the comeback he deserves. And Fraser does admittedly give this drama his all, tapping into emotional veins that feel deeply personal. It’s a daring, ambitious performance.
Sadly, I’m less convinced that the source material deserves his efforts, or that the very talented Aronofsky ever figured out how to overcome its notable flaws. This is a shapeless melodrama, one that throws serious subjects like obesity, suicide, teen rebellion, religion, and sexuality into a blender without ever making the mix believable. Other than some nice choices by Hong Chau, all that works here can be found in Fraser’s haunted eyes—I wish this comeback performance was in a film that truly felt like it was trying to understand what’s behind those eyes instead of just pushing them to cry.
Fraser plays a writing instructor named Charlie, a teacher who never turns his camera on during Zoom sessions because he weighs 600 pounds. The film basically opens with a death sentence for Charlie when his nurse takes his blood pressure at a level that should be impossible. Rather than go to the hospital, Charlie chooses to spend his last week on Earth connecting with his estranged daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink)—a decision that never rings true, despite Fraser’s best efforts to sell it. The small ensemble is filled in by a door-to-door evangelist named Thomas (Ty Simpkins), who wants to save Charlie’s soul while he still has time.
Charlie is constantly preaching honesty and authenticity to his students, but I find very little of either in Samuel D. Hunter’s play or screenplay adaptation of it. Much will be made of the play’s handling of obesity, and yet it’s really only the most prominent weapon in Hunter’s manipulative arsenal. He’s so intent on pushing the viewer’s emotions that the characters start to become pawns in a game. Don’t be fooled into thinking this film cares about people like Charlie beyond what they can do to activate your tear ducts.