Charlie is a 600-pound college English professor, who now teaches on-line only. He can barely move around his dark and lonely apartment. He spends most of his day sitting on his oversized couch. When he does move, he must use a walker. Charlie’s greatest trials occur when he drops something which he cannot pick up with his reacher. Although he is personable, Charlie’s sheer size renders him one of society’s outcasts.
Fortunately, Charlie’s nurse Liz stops by every day to check on him. She checks his heart and his eye-popping blood pressure. Advising him that it’s a miracle he’s still alive, Liz begs Charlie to go to the hospital. But knowing his meager health insurance won’t cover it, Charlie steadfastly refuses. And so goes his pathetic existence.
Charlie and Ellie
Then one day, Charlie’s daughter Ellie shows up unannounced. This is the first time the two have laid eyes on one another in nine years – since Charlie walked out on his wife and daughter due to an extra-marital affair. While Charlie is only too happy to reconnect, all Ellie wants is for him to write her term paper.
Charlie is quite a case. He began eating himself to death on a steady diet of junk food when his partner died four years after the divorce. Ellie is, in many ways, the more interesting character. Charlie maintains she has a good heart, and that her intentions are good. However, all we see is a raging eccentric full of teen angst. In fact, Ellie’s is teen angst turned up to an almost excruciating level – perhaps the worst in film history. The fact that Charlie sees her as anything but pure evil is remarkable – although we eventually realize Charlie is the eternal optimist.
Odd choice for Aronofsky
“The Whale” is the latest from Darren Aronofsky, a director known for psychological dramas such as “Black Swan” and “mother!” At first glance, “The Whale” seems somewhat outside the realm of Aronofsky’s typical playbook. But we soon learn there is a lot more to this story than simply following a morbidly obese man around his apartment. Sure, there are the obligatory scenes of going to the bathroom, overeating, sleeping, and simply getting out of bed. But “The Whale” is a story of redemption and salvation. For a narrative that trashes religion at the outset, Samuel D. Hunter’s adapted screenplay eventually leads to a conclusion of biblical deliverance.
Playing Charlie is Brendan Fraser, a former comedic actor who hasn’t had a role this juicy in… forever. For the first time, Fraser will garner serious Oscar consideration. And deservedly so. Had he played Charlie too sentimentally, we would empathize but only up to a certain point. Had he played Charlie as a bitter man, we would fail to sympathize at all. Fraser walks a fine line with this role, and does so brilliantly.
Almost as crucial to the film’s success is young Sadie Sink as Ellie. Sadie is as jaded and hostile to the world as Charlie is trusting of it. Charlie knows his students would think differently of him if they were to lay eyes on him. So, he pretends his laptop camera is on the fritz. Ellie is the type who would film her corpulent father and post it online so the rest of the world can laugh at him. Fortunately, Aronofsky and Hunter ultimately introduce us to Charlie’s ex-wife Mary (Samantha Morton), who provides insight into Ellie’s state of mind, as well as a buffer between her acidity and Charlie’s geniality.
Hong Chau plays Liz, the nurse — a character who is bitter for other reasons than Ellie. And rounding out the outstanding cast is Ty Simpkins as Thomas, a young missionary who takes it upon himself to “save” Charlie and introduce him to the ways of Jesus. But remember, Charlie is an English professor. He’s read the bible several times – even highlighted certain verses, and made notes in the margins of his copy. As Liz and Ellie mock and criticize Thomas’ personal crusade, Charlie welcomes their discussions. At first glance, it doesn’t appear as though the Thomas character will be crucial to the proceedings, but he turns out to serve a purpose not only as a plot development, but as an offset to the hopelessness of Ellie.
An instant classic
There’s quite a bit of activity going on here, although almost all the action takes place inside Charlie’s apartment. “The Whale” was originally a stage play, written by Hunter, and it often feels as though we are watching a filmed play. As layers of Charlie’s past are revealed, we are drawn into his unique world. By the time we reach the deeply moving finale, we find ourselves rooting for this misunderstood outcast. And as Charlie’s students study Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick,” we realize “The Whale” refers to more than just Charlie.
Everything you’ve heard about this film and Brendan Fraser is true. “The Whale” is instantly one of this decade’s best pictures. It is Fraser’s and Aronofsky’s finest work so far in their careers. It will make a star out of Sadie Sink. It’s a serious and often troubling piece of work, with an ending to rival that of “One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest.” It’s not often an audience applauds for a motion picture. It happens with “The Whale.”
Andy Ray‘s reviews also appear on https://youarecurrent.com/category/nightandday/film-reviews/.