I must say, “Brendan Fraser comeback” is not something I had on my prediction card for the 2020s and it’s also frankly not something I particularly desired either. Fraser’s careers in the late 90s and early 2000s was something that at least theoretically happened at a time that was right in the window for millennials like myself to have a lot of nostalgia for the guy but outside of The Mummy his movies were never really my thing. He was essentially a comic actor, but he wasn’t really a “comedian” per se; he didn’t come from the worlds of stand-up or sketch comedy and I never got the idea that he wrote or improvised jokes. Instead he seemed to just fall into that comedic milieu just because he had kind of a funny looking face and a bit of a childlike aura around him and that seemed to appeal to kids. He also had a foot in the action movie genre through those Mummy movies, where he was kind of a precursor to what Dwayne Johnson does, but without the buff physique. That might be why I don’t have the world’s most positive memories of the guy, I don’t think his influence on mainsteam film acting is entirely positive and his occasional dips into straight drama like his work in Crash is definitely not well remembered. When he disappeared from movie stardom somewhere in the late aughts I can’t say I really missed him and I certainly didn’t see the groundswell of goodwill toward him as he re-emerges coming. Some of it is nostalgia, some of it is public sympathy for some issues in his personal life, but people really want this comeback to happen and now it seems to be coming together through an unlikely project: a Darren Aronofsky movie that’s serious as cancer called The Whale.
The Whale is set somewhere in rural Idaho and looks at the life of a man named Charlie (Brendan Fraser), and we learn pretty much from the beginning that he probably only has a week to live. Charlie is a man who has become morbidly obese: he weighs over six hundred pounds and can only barely stand up and walk with the assistance of a mobility walker and is largely confined to his small apartment where he works from home as an English professor for online colleges. Over time we come to learn that he wasn’t always like this and meet various people from his past and present including his friend Liz (Hong Chau), a nurse who was the sister of his former boyfriend, who had passed away several years earlier and we come to learn this loss is what pushed him into his current self-destructive cycle. We also come to meet Ellie (Sadie Sink), his seventeen year old daughter from a marriage he had much earlier in his life which ended when he had an affair with the aforementioned boyfriend (it’s not clear if Charlie is bi or if his hetero marriage was the result of closeted denial). As such his ex-wife hates him and he can only meet Ellie secretly and she’s not terribly interested in interacting with him herself for the same reasons but will humor him as she learns he has some money he’s willing to give to her if she visits. During her visits he comes to learn that she’s extremely rebellious bordering on being a juvenile delinquent and is close to flunking out of high school, though he still enjoys her presence just the same but the end is approaching and it’s not clear if he’s going to get all his affairs in order in time.
The Whale is a movie I’ve been looking forward to seeing but kind of dreading talking about and reading about. I’ve been looking forward to seeing it in large part because it’s the latest film from director Darren Aronofsky, a filmmaker who takes big swings and while I don’t love all of his movies he never fails to makes something memorable. He is not, however, exactly a filmmaker who I’d call “sensitive.” On the contrary, he tends to put his characters through the ringer in order to make larger, almost cosmic, statements about the world and about the extremes of the human experience, and though it’s less technically and stylistically audacious than some of his work The Whale is absolutely a Darren Aronofsky movie. It’s about a recluse in an apartment like his very first movie Pi was, Charlie’s food urges could be viewed as a form of addiction like Requiem for a Dream depicted, religion is a theme in the film like it was in Noah and mother!, but the movie it most resembles is probably The Wrestler, which was another movie about a middle aged man who has hit something of a personal rock bottom and has kind of given up on his own health in the pursuit of other goals. In fact you could probably put this, The Wrestler, and Black Swan into a trilogy of bodily self-destruction.
This is where I think the critics of the film’s depiction of “fatness” are, frankly, not engaging with the work in the way it was intended. This is not a film that’s trying to be an “issue movie” and isn’t looking at a case that is “representative,” it’s instead looking at a very extreme case of obesity and doing so to dramatic ends. And I would argue that the film presents some pretty searing drama. The film is an adaptation of a stage play and doesn’t try to hide it, taking place almost entirely in Charlie’s apartment and built largely around dialogue between him, his friend, his daughter, and a strange teenage missionary who has made it his mission to “save” Charlie. Fraser has been getting a lot of the press for his performance in the movie but these co-stars more than hold their own in his presence and over the course of his interactions with all of them you get a pretty strong portrait of what kind of guy Charlie is and the portrait painted is largely positive; criticisms that Aronofsky somehow “hates” this man are plainly off base. This isn’t to say the movie is perfect by any means, I think the ending is a touch histrionic and it’s not as cinematically adventurous as some of Aronofsky’s best movies and never really fully transcends its stage origins, but it caught my attention early and had me interested in all of these characters and their respective plights the whole way through and that’s not easy.
**** out of Five