Review of Aronofsky's "The Whale"

Magical Realist Offline
Well it IS distributed my the infamous A24 distributor. But maybe I'll wait till it comes to cable..

"Say what you will about Darren Aronofsky, but his devotion to Grand Guignol exhibitionism is never boring. In his latest film, The Whale, Brendan Fraser plays the middle-aged Charlie, a morbidly obese man endeavoring to eat himself to death. Throughout, Aronofsky invites us to gawk at Fraser’s prosthetic-enhanced appearance as his character showers, masturbates, and precariously moves around his rundown Idaho apartment with the aid of a rickety walker. When the man binges on meatball sandwiches or chocolate bars, it’s shot and scored with the bombastic revulsion of a horror movie.

Despite these moments, though, The Whale does find Aronofsky reining in his typically ostentatious style, if not in the same way that he did with The Wrestler, which struck the ideal balance between clear-eyed realism and intense craftsmanship. Based on screenwriter Samuel D. Hunter’s play of the same name, the film is nothing if not stagy, at times even suggesting a recording of a live performance. It’s an initially intriguing approach, with the claustrophobia of the one-room setting intermittently suggesting a ship out at sea, like the Pequod from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, which is often referenced and alluded to in the film.

This artificiality also extends to the big and sincere emotions of The Whale’s characters, although in this regard it seems far less deliberate. Years prior, Charlie was a professor who left his wife, Mary (Samantha Morton), for one of his male students, who then killed himself sometime later. Now, after letting his weight get out of control, Charlie is living a solitary existence as an online writing instructor (at one point, he implores his students to “write something honest,” while, of course, keeping his webcam shut off). His only lifeline to sanity is Liz (Hong Chau), a friend and the sister of his deceased partner, who makes regular visits to nurse Charlie while pleading in vain for him to go to the hospital before he has a coronary.

Charlie’s weight issue is never anything more complex than a direct result of his capital-T trauma. But considering how Libatique’s camera leeringly treats Charlie as an unsightly object of pity throughout, it’s difficult to deny the film’s fatphobia, though its mawkishness is no less oppressive. When Charlie’s teenage daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink), shows up at his door, angry and scornful at the father who disappeared from her life, it’s presented as a chance for Charlie to mend the psychological wreckage that his decisions have had on others and, somehow, chart a constructive way forward. But almost as soon as she opens her mouth, Ellie’s default mode is to take nasty jabs at Charlie’s “disgusting” appearance and sexual orientation, at which point her stilted, subtext-blaring words become The Whale’s guiding principle.

It’s easy to see what drew the director of Noah to Hunter’s play, given how it dabbles into the realm of religious belief, albeit superficially. A young door-to-door missionary, Thomas (Ty Simpkins), arrives at Charlie’s apartment during one of many moments when he’s indisposed and in need of help. Thomas takes this as a sign from God that he must stick around to also spiritually save the poor man, spurring on an ongoing series of blunt back-and-forths with Charlie, Ellie, and Liz, who are all to varying degrees cynical and atheistic.

All of this unsubtle narrative busywork betrays the fact that the material scarcely wrestles with its ideas about faith and empathy. Worse, neither Aronofsky nor his cast seem to really care about the reality of what it’s like to live with weight issues, at least not past what it can do to enhance an ostensibly artistic dramatic scenario. The effect is cold and calculated, right down to the performers, who spend the film trying to out-shout each other, their every word ultimately hanging dead in the air, flattening the emotional impact that they’re desperately straining for.

The Whale has been touted as a comeback for Fraser, whose talents have been underrated throughout this career, even when he was specializing in broadly comedic roles. But while it’s gratifying at times to see him put that signature puppy dog face to impassioned effect here, even his boundless expressiveness is bogged down by the film’s solemnity. “I just want to know I did one good thing in my life!” Charlie shouts near the end of The Whale, emerging out of his self-defeating funk to vocalize his growing urgency to be the supportive father he once was. But the film doesn’t give Fraser the space to intuitively build to this climactic moment, instead relying on the fussy dialogue to spell out the emotions for him. Aronofsky may think he’s presenting some kind of radically cathartic journey throughout The Whale, but all he’s doing is bringing a hollow sense of dignity to his schematic brand of cinematic misery porn."
C C Offline
Thanks for reminding me of it.

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