1/13/2023 THE WHALE Area Movie Theatres
WHAT REALLY MATTERS
So, I finally caught up with the new film version of The Whale, a marvelous play by Samuel D. Hunter that had a 2015 production at Actor’s Express that topped my “favorites” list that year. The movie is a gut-punch of an experience, hitting every emotional beat I remember from the play, and showcasing a multi-leveled performance by Brendan Fraser that is totally unexpected and totally moving. First, let me hit the template description of the piece from my 2015 review.
The Whale is a heartfelt portrait of a gentle soul surrounded by ungentle people. It is a condemnation of religious cruelty, mean-girl teen aspiration, and critical over-analysis. And, at heart (and in ultimate effect), it is a celebration of embracing the aspects of life that "really matter."
Charlie is morbidly obese and is embracing the death sentence his congestive heart has passed. His life is confined to his living room easy chair, from which he teaches on-line composition, watches television with his helper, and longs to reconnect with his daughter, whom he hasn't seen since she was nine. Into his Idaho home stumbles Thomas, a young cult member on a mission.
Throughout the movie, Charlie is rooted in place, with the single-set film (rightly) refusing to “open up” its stage roots. Even the aspect-ratio is a traditional square, making the characters seem even more confined. People come and go, people
who love him, hate him, want to change him. Thomas is appealing and earnest and has a few "interesting" secrets of his own. Charlie's helper, Liz, is the sister of his ex-lover, a man who (perhaps) committed suicide upon being rejected by his father and by the cult. (It was actually the Mormon Church on stage, but here it is changed to a fictional “congregation” to which every character has some connection.) Charlie's daughter, Ellie, is an angry young woman, who hates Charlie, hates her mother, hates the world and everyone in it. Ellie's mother, Mary, is a bitter alcoholic who has given up on her daughter ("She is evil!") and given up on Charlie since his betrayal of her.
And centering it all is the calm benevolence of Charlie. He may have given up on life, but he hasn't given up on any of his visitors. He also has not given up on his students, seen here as Zoom constructs, who have been conditioned to write what they think Charlie wants them to write, ignoring what they really feel, what they are passionate about, what really matters to them.
But, more than everything, Charlie wants to pierce the armor of his troubled daughter, even though she is effectively a stranger to him. He sees in her a passion of honesty (tactless and hateful though it may be) that he tries to nurture, constantly ignoring her casual cruelties. It is this struggle that is central to the movie, that provides its driving force, that pays off beautifully in its final moments.
And this movie is filled with breathtakingly honest moments. Mary, unconsciously caressing Charlie's chest as she listens for his struggling heartbeat. Liz providing food to Charlie, even though she recognizes it's killing him. Ellie taking an interest in Thomas, committing an action that SEEMS hateful and mean, but is in reality the best thing anyone could have done for him. Liz bringing a "fat guy wheelchair" into the apartment so Charlie can become (slightly) mobile and less dependent for those "disgusting personal activities." And, unlike the play, the movie shows us those “disgusting personal activities” – the gluttonous eating, the gay-porn-fed self-satisfaction, the showering in a too-small stall, the effort required to pick up a key or rise to the feet or get into a bed.
One recurring plot point is an essay on Moby Dick that Charlie uses as a lifeline. It's a tad immature and clumsy, but it shows an honesty missing from Charlie’s more “practiced” students’ work, and, more relevantly, it shows an insight into Charlie and how he is coping with the downward spiral of his life. There are also references to the biblical story of Jonah, as if one whale metaphor weren't enough. Yeah, the symbolism is obvious but that doesn't lessen its emotional resonance, it's more-than-symbolic effect on Charlie's life.
I suspect a lot of this would not work without a Charlie who commands the screen, our attention, our empathy. Brendan Fraser is more than a macho star in a “fat suit” (Charlie weighs in at 600+) – he is a fully realized character, a man with regrets and pain and desires and faults and, above all, a deep appreciation for kindness and other people. When he shouts “I need to know I have done one thing right with my life” to his ex-wife, it is so fraught with pain and desire and regret and humanity, you can’t help but respond. Mr. Fraser perfectly captures the effort it takes to move, to think, to even breathe (the last couple scenes are dominated by his wheeze, as he struggles to get every breath required to finish his task). If Charlie is physically grotesque, he is emotionally glowing -- his goodwill and optimism are a perfect larger-than-life antidote to the emotional grotesqueries of the other characters.
I was also very impressed with Sadie Sink (“Max” from Stranger Things) as Ellie. She is arrogant and grating and every inch the rebellious teenager, but she has such a naked vulnerability that she demands that we accept her coldness and callousness, her unkindnesses borne of a lifetime of lovelessness. The rest of the cast is also perfect – Hong Chau as Liz, Ty Simpkins as Thomas and Samantha Morton (“Alpha” on The Walking Dead) as Mary. The movie adds a Pizza Delivery guy named Dan, played by Sathya Sidharan who manages to create a compelling character (mostly) sight unseen.
The film has been directed by Darren Aronofsky whose films never fail to push boundaries of viewer comfort. Pi, Black Swan, and Requiem for a Dream were all personal favorites that intrigued even as they induced discomfort and actual squirminess. He has shot this movie on a single set, keeping things dark (every day is stormy until the end) and closes with a soaringly eloquent image that would be impossible on stage – even if it were attempted it wouldn’t work.
But when all is said and done, Brendan Fraser is the real reason for this movie’s success. It is because of him that we see Ellie's potential, that we forgive the unkindness of everyone he meets.
The Whale is an emotionally powerful film, a triumph of the art of stage-screen adaptation, a "Moby Dick" from the perspective of the whale (if you'll forgive the central metaphor), a tale of a world-weary man who can't help but grasp at that one last lifeline coming his way.
It had me blubbering.
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com #TheWhale #LetsCryTogether)