The Whale review, Venice Film Festival: Brendan Fraser comeback is grossly manipulative to an effective degree

·4 min read
Venice Film Festival-Preview (A24)
Venice Film Festival-Preview (A24)

Dir: Darren Aronofsky; Starring: Brendan Fraser, Sadie Sink, Hong Chau, Samantha Morton

First seen masturbating as he watches online porn, Charlie (Brendan Fraser), the main character in The Whale, isn’t just morbidly obese; he is a lumbering leviathan of a man, so immensely fat that he can barely manoeuvre himself off his couch, let alone leave his apartment. He sweats profusely, vomits into dustbins and almost chokes on the junk food he gorges himself on. “Who would want me to be part of their life?” he asks plaintively toward the end of the film. Even his daughter calls him disgusting.

Darren Aronofsky’s film, a world premiere in competition in the Venice Film Festival this weekend, is stagy and mawkish. Watching it, you feel grossly manipulated but the approach is undeniably effective. Fourteen years ago, the same director came to Venice with his equally grungy and melodramatic The Wrestler, starring Mickey Rourke as a washed up fighter in a similar state of physical dereliction. That film won hatfuls of awards. It would be no surprise if The Whale does the same.

Fraser was the star of films like The Mummy and George of The Jungle in the days when he was a more conventionally shaped leading man. Now, covered in layers of prosthetics, he gives one of those sad-eyed performances, like a dog with an injured paw begging for a bone, that many audiences will find very hard to resist.

Charlie makes a living by giving online English literature tutorials. He lies to his students that the camera on his laptop is broken so he doesn’t have to reveal himself in his full grotesquerie. As the film progresses, we gradually discover why he has allowed himself to grow so monstrously out of shape. Just under a decade before, he walked out on his marriage, abandoning his then eight-year-old daughter to take up with a student called Alan with whom he had fallen in love. Alan is now dead. Charlie is eaten up with guilt. He is also suffering congestive heart failure which could kill him at any time.

The film is based on a play by Samuel D Hunter. Aronofsky does little to open up his source material for the screen; the entire story takes place in Charlie’s apartment. In its lighter moments, The Whale is disconcertingly reminiscent of American family sitcoms full of eccentric relatives and friends who bicker incessantly but love each other really. Various characters turn up at Charlie’s door. One regular visitor Liz, (Hong Chau), a sharp-tongued but affectionate woman who has a demanding job yet still tends to his medical needs and keeps him in food.

Also continually re-appearing is Thomas (Ty Simpkins), a hapless young missionary from a cult-like religious group, who wants to save the fat man’s soul. Then, most important to Charlie, there is his estranged daughter, Ellie (Stranger Things’ Sadie Sink), now 17 and in danger of flunking out of high school. She wants him to help her with her school essays but doesn’t hide her contempt for him. Her mother (Samantha Morton) doesn’t know she is there.

Physical drama comes whenever Charlie tries to move a few steps across his apartment, or to go to the bathroom. The slightest exertion exhausts him. In spite of his decrepitude, he is a sweet natured and optimistic character with an engaging sense of humour. The title of the film refers not just to his shape, but to an essay written by a disgruntled kid, dissing Herman Melville’s classic novel Moby Dick. He knows the essay by heart and regards it as his favourite piece of writing.

Aronofsky goes so far out of his way to portray Charlie in the early scenes as a repulsive bum that it’s inevitable the character’s better qualities will soon emerge. Fraser retains the genial qualities which made him so popular with audiences in mainstream 1990s movies. He demands honesty from his students but there’s nothing cynical about him.

The pathos is laid on very thick. At times, you wonder why a filmmaker as sophisticated as Aronofsky is resorting to such manipulative tactics. Beneath all its blubber, though, this turns out to be a film with a very big heart.