Man’s Insanity is Heaven’s Sense
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Starring Brendan Fraser, Hong Chau, Sadie Sink
Released December 9th, 2022
Morbidly obese English teacher Charlie (Brendan Fraser) has resigned himself to the fact that he only has days to live. He refuses any attempt to get him to a hospital, though I’m not exactly sure why. Charlie is depressed, yes, but there are things he still cares about. He cares about his students, whom he teachers via Zoom with his camera turned off, lest they judge his weight. He cares about his caretaker Liz (Hong Chau), his only friend. He cares about his teenage daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink), though they haven’t seen or spoken to each other in years. One gets the impression he even cares about his pizza delivery man, though he leaves money on his porch, so he won’t suffer the embarrassment of being seen.
Charlie is thrilled when his estranged daughter Ellie starts coming to his house. Ellie seems to be made of 100% anger and she lets Charlie know in no uncertain terms that she does not like him, that she is repulsed by him. Charlie accepts her feelings, always with a wounded smile. He asks her to visit him every day. He says he will help her with her English class. He says he will even pay her for her time. Ellie agrees.
One day, a teenage missionary named Thomas (Ty Simpkins) comes knocking. Thomas says he wants Charlie’s soul to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Complicating this wish is the fact that Charlie is gay. We learn that he is grieving the loss of his partner, his weight growing exponentially as his shame and grief grew just as large. Thomas isn’t concerned with Charlie losing weight or becoming healthy. He is only concerned that when this gay man dies, he will go to hell. Unless Thomas can get him to renounce his orientation, of course.
The title The Whale works to describe Charlie’s considerable weight, but also refers to an essay Charlie is obsessed with that was written about Herman Melville’s classic American novel Moby-Dick. Charlie has panic attacks and only reading that essay (or someone reading it to him) can calm his nerves.
For his role as Charlie, Brendan Fraser wore upwards of three hundred pounds of prosthetics, worked with a dance instructor to inform his movements, and consulted with the Obesity Action Coalition. His performance comes across as sympathetic and fairly accurate, as we watch Charlie using walkers and wheelchairs to get around his house, and a pulley system to get in and out of bed. Some of these scenes reminded me of the reality show My 600-Lb Life. There is an unfortunate car crash element in watching a reality show like that or a film like this, as you consider how much of a hardship it would be to be that large. I’ve never cared for Fraser’s acting style (nobody could accuse him of subtlety), and while he is decent as Charlie, I didn’t find the part to be anything special.
You probably are familiar with the flame-haired Sadie Sink from her breakout role as Max on Stranger Things. It’s a shame that her character here is so entirely one-note. Ellie is anger, pure and simple. She’s cruel to everyone to the point that I wondered if she was supposed to come across as a sociopath. Samantha Morton fares better as Charlie’s ex-wife, in a small but effective part. The best performance in the film is delivered by Hong Chau as Charlie’s only friend Liz, the nurse who takes care of him. It is revealed through the course of the story why she is doing this. Chau, also very good in 2022’s The Menu, imbues her character with more depth than is on the page.
Samuel D. Hunter adapted the screenplay from his stage play. I imagine seeing this on stage could make for a bigger impact, not that the story itself would be any deeper. This all amounts to a rare miss from director Darren Aronofsky, who has helmed many incredible films in his career, such as The Fountain and Black Swan. Doing their best to help him elevate the proceedings are production designers Mark Friedberg and Robert Pyzocha, cinematographer Matthew Libatique, and score composer Rob Simonsen. But strong performances and talented filmmakers are not enough to rescue the shallow story. When the film begins, you are sad that Charlie is fat. When the film ends, you are sad that Charlie was fat.