Not too far into The Whale, the new Darren Aronofsky movie, my eyes began to grow blurred and soggy; midway through, I was smearing away an actual tear or two, and by the end…well, let's just say that the conclusion of this picture, which unifies its themes in a powerful rush of poetic imagery, can only encourage outright blubbering.
Some may argue that The Whale is really just an old-fashioned weepie, a simple commercial calculation, featuring a likeable protagonist beset by tragic circumstance. Maybe it's not a deep-think picture akin to, say, The Elephant Man. Maybe it's simpler than that—more like Bambi.
Whatever the case, the movie is elevated by the gripping performance of its star, Brendan Fraser, who was showered with acclaim when The Whale debuted at this year's Venice Film Festival. Fraser has been emerging from a period of diminished professional activity in recent years, and it's good to have him back. Here, in the role of Charlie, a lonely but dauntless English teacher isolated from society by his extreme obesity, he rises above the burden of mounds of prosthetic fat to fashion a character that addresses deep human sorrows.
The story is set in an unremarkable house in northern Idaho, where we meet Charlie and see that his body is so encumbered by rolls of fat that he's barely mobile. He once taught college-level English literature (with an emphasis on Melville's Moby Dick, in which, as he notes, the narrator, Ishmael, goes to bed—chastely—with the Polynesian harpoonist Queequeg). But now Charlie gets by running an online course for students he can only see on Zoom monitors. (They never see him at all, since he blocks transmission of his own image.) We soon learn that Charlie is gay and that he abandoned his wife and daughter nine years earlier in order to move in with a man with whom he'd fallen in love. When his lover died, Charlie went into a straight-to-the-bottom tailspin, medicating his psychic pain with a never-ending food binge. Now he eats KFC by the bucket and pizzas two at a time.
Director Aronofsky has a tender regard for the particular problems endured by the overweight: negotiating the complexities of bathrooms, struggling to force wheelchairs through too-narrow doorways. In one scene, we see Charlie dropping a set of keys on the floor, and then feel his spirit sink as they slide beneath a chair, irretrievable even by his cane-length gripping tool. His only potential helper in such situations is his devoted nurse, Liz (Hong Chau of The Menu), who spends much of her visitation time telling Charlie that if he doesn't get his appetite under control he will die, and probably soon. (The actress strikes a delicate balance in playing this character, slipping smoothly between exasperation and helpless affection.)
Also dropping by—for the first time in years—is Charlie's estranged teenage daughter Ellie (a terrific Sadie Sink of Stranger Things), who is still venomously angry about her father's abandonment. Then there's his wounded but still-concerned ex-wife, Mary (Samantha Morton), who suffers residual embarrassment over having had to tell friends that her husband left her for a man.
Author Samuel D. Hunter, once an obese gay man himself, based his play on events in his own life, so it's likely that one other character—a New Age missionary named Thomas—is modeled on a real-life person. Unfortunately, as a movie character (played by Ty Simpkins), he is heftless and ineffective.
Otherwise, though, The Whale is finely judged, especially when Charlie addresses the wonders of his most-beloved book. "In Moby Dick," he says, "the whale has no emotions—he's just a really big animal. This book made me think about my own life."