The Whale takes its title from the looks of a character and a book he loves. The story’s teacher, Charlie gets the reference because he weighs 600 pounds. And go figure, he feels drawn to repeatedly read a simple essay about the novel Moby Dick. That phrase “go figure” threads its way through Samuel D. Hunter’s screenplay as it gradually unveils causes for events and connections among its characters.
Director Daron Aronofsky’s previous movie successes like The Wrestler and Black Swan show a similar intrigue with characters in extreme circumstances facing potentially fatal crises. More confined than those films, The Whale shows its roots as a play, mostly limited to a single room where people drop in and reveal unsuspected connections. Like many plays, The Whale feels determined to come to resolutions by its finale, trying to tidy up loose ends that can do without fancy bows.
But the overall project remains compelling, opening with a Zoom screen revealing a class of student faces and a black rectangle for the instructor. A scene later, the reason shows up—actor Brendan Fraser unrecognizable from his hunky George of the Jungle days. Effective make up and costuming add hundreds of pounds to the actor’s frame, enough of a shock value to bring attention from the awards circuit. Still, his voice and eyes go beyond the disguise to display the character’s troubled emotions as he grabs for opportunities to make amends for his past mistakes. The resulting heartstring tugging feels forced at times, but Fraser’s commanding performance holds the project together.
Controversy surrounds the project, with some saying the role should have gone to someone who truly looks the part in real life and better understands the story’s motivations for weight gain—the quote “write what you know” and “be who you are” school of thought. But both fields--writing and acting--offer the challenge of exploring and creating new worlds, so none of my hesitations about The Whale involve those complaints.
The Whale stays afloat as a flawed but intriguing film from an innovative and risk-taking director.