Awards season films are a different breed. We know this. We get our fun movies in the summer. During the winter we get the character studies, the meditations, and the examinations. With that, The Whale jumps into theaters after gradually rolling out on the festival circuit. While the movie is well known for bringing Brendan Fraser back to us with a vengeance (with rumors of very legitimate Oscar hopes), little else about the drama is really known. Is The Whale a don’t-miss entry as we gear up to Oscar season?
The Whale follows an English professor (Fraser) living with morbid obesity and struggling with tragedy in his personal life. As his health declines and he faces his own mortality, he resolves to make peace with his estranged teenage daughter (Sadie Sink.) Ty Simpkins, Hong Chau and Samantha Morton co-star in the movie. Darren Aronofsky directs The Whale from a script by Samuel D. Hunter.
Let’s jump in and start with what everyone wants to know about: Brendan Fraser. Since this film first began the festival circuit, Fraser emerged as a hard and fast awards favorite. We are living through the Brendan Fraser-isance and it is oh-so-welcomed.
Ultimately, while this is a highly emotional performance from the very likable Fraser, this isn’t transformative. When all is said and done, this is simply another example of a Hollywood performer earning awards buzz due in equal part to the make-up and prosthetics on top of the performance. While Fraser does a heck of a job with what he’s given, I never truly lost sight of him in this role. This always feels like Brendan Fraser under heavy makeup.
In actuality, the performer we should be discussing at this very important time of year is Hong Chau. Chau has been on the rise since making her feature film debut in 2014’s Inherent Vice. She earned critical acclaim for her work in 2017’s Downsizing but has largely remained under the critical radar over the last few years.
This time out, Chau is a stunning revelation as Charlie’s friend (and nurse) Liz. She not only serves as the companion Charlie desperately needs, but she is also the audience’s one window to the outside world. Despite the fact we’re always with Charlie, we experience the world through Liz’s eyes.
The Whale is based on a stage play (also by Hunter). In this feature film adaptation, the movie is still structured much like a play. The action never leaves Charlie’s apartment. Like him, we’re unable to exit this claustrophobic world. This puts added pressure on the performances. The Whale is an actor’s feast. As mentioned Chau and Fraser both sink their teeth into the material.
However, the film makes interesting choices when handling Charlie’s teenage daughter Ellie (Sink). Abandoned by her father at a young age, Ellie is trapped somewhere between brat, sociopath, and thoroughly and completely unlikeable. There is no other way to spin this character.
While Ellie’s development certainly helps ramp up the emotionality in the film’s conclusion, it’s a long haul getting there. In fact, the winding narrative road hurts that much more because Charlie seems so blind to her very visible flaws.
This is awards season, and those who watch movies during this time of year are certainly expecting works that play heavier with their drama. It’s not uncommon to have to bring out a tissue or two during Oscar season. These movies contemplate, lecture, examine, and even sometimes preach.
The Whale takes a massive step beyond this. While this is a meditation on Charlie’s character and Fraser approaches this man with love and understanding, it’s difficult to believe the movie does. The Whale is cold, harsh, and unrelenting. Nothing about this is an easy watch.
This is most certainly the intention. This is an examination of the judgment Charlie feels from others on a daily basis.
Ultimately though, this results in watching as Charlie is judged, abused, pitied, and exploited for the entire length of this movie. This man needs something in his life to go right and in Fraser’s hands, you’re desperate to see him get a win. It’s a heartbreaker.
When all is said and done, I can ultimately understand why The Whale is receiving the buzz it is. This is “Awards Bait”. However, as the final credits rolled, I didn’t like it. This movie was not for me. While the performances here (particularly Chau and Fraser) are solid, strange narrative choices and the unrelenting sadness in this narrative keep it from reaching true greatness.
The Whale debuts in select theaters on December 9th. The movie opens in theaters around the county just in time for Christmas on December 21st.
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