Written By Hayden Claborn, Writer
“All mortal greatness is but disease.” – Moby Dick, Chapter 6
Moby Dick by Herman Manville is a tale of enormous depth and one that has spawned endless interpretation. Depending on who you ask, it’s either a theodicy, a tragedy of Captain Ahab’s search for meaning, or even a queer love story. This level of meaning cannot be applied to The Whale, which uses Manville’s transcendent masterpiece as its centerpiece. This film, the latest from Darren Aaronoskfy (Black Swan), typically one of my favorite filmmakers, is a dumb person’s idea of a smart movie. Characters gesture at concepts such as faith, honesty, and death, but the exploration of these ideas is equivalent to an eighth grader reading bullet points from a PowerPoint.
The film is about Charlie (Brendan Fraser), a reclusive, gay, obese English teacher who is told by his only friend and nurse Liz (Hong Chau) that he’s going to die of heart failure if he doesn’t go to the hospital, which Charlie refuses to do under the guise of being broke. Despite being a recluse, a variety of characters walk in and out of his Idaho apartment. You have a Christian missionary named Thomas (Ty Simpkins) who desperately wants to save Charlie’s soul and Ellie (Sadie Sink) Charlie’s estranged daughter who hates her father.
The script by Samuel D. Hunter, adapted from his own play, is borderline incompetent. It’s as if all the characters were created independently and dropped into this story– nobody feels as if they’re in the same movie. A generous read would be this is a story of contradictions and misunderstandings but I don’t have that level of generosity in me and frankly the text doesn’t support it either.
The confusing nature of the text can’t outshine the clear fatphobia on screen, either. The film suggests that Charlie is choosing to suffer; it has an obsession with Charlie being able to walk on his own not so much as an act of progress but as defiance of his unhealthy state. The film is accompanied by a menacing score by Rob Simonsen which might as well contain the lyrics “you’re going to die!”
The shots of Charlie verge on offensively provocative. Him taking off his shirt is filmed like a reveal of Frankenstein’s monster. Despite Fraser’s best efforts, there is no humanity in the character or filmmaking. Not even Aaronsky’s juiced-up style is on display. Instead we get sterile camera work and lighting so dim you’d forget that the great Matthew Libatique was behind the lens. Simply put, Aaronsofky wasn’t the right man for the job and has made his worst film to date.
The lynchpin of the narrative is this Moby Dick essay Charlie reads to himself as a way to calm down. The essay describes the sad realization that Manville’s heavily detailed descriptions of whales are a way to “save us from his own sad story, just for a little while.” Quality of that interpretation aside, The Whale isn’t about the profound nature of art or any real parallels to the novel, outside of the crude comparison of being a whale to being fat.
I don’t need to go into detail on the hard life Brendan Fraser has had and seeing him win an Oscar after being blacklisted from Hollywood is heartwarming. Too bad the performance itself reeks of an actor trying to find depth that isn’t there. I really don’t blame any of the actors because they’re all committed to the bit, which is unfortunately a terrible one.