The meta-narrative leading up to the release of The Whale, along with its terrible trailer, made sure you knew this was Brendan Fraser’s comeback, the role of a lifetime—and if the exultant pull quotes from its Venice premiere didn’t grab you, the sight of a sweaty, nearly bald, and morbidly obese Fraser wheezing the words, “People are amazing… People are incapable of not caring.” These lines, along with the deadly serious and somber trailer, have become the object of rightful ridicule: my friend Max Eilbacher told me he saw the trailer and thought it looked like “the worst movie ever made.” Besides those who are turned off by the brief but treacly trailer, far more people are going to avoid The Whale at all costs precisely because of the way Fraser looks.
But this isn’t a movie about obesity, and Aronofsky never milks laughs out of his lead’s 600 pounds. Fraser plays Charlie, a shut-in teaching online college courses to writing students he’s desperately trying to reach but just can’t manage to inspire. We meet him in voiceover, as he talks to his class and makes excuses about his “broken” webcam; this is the first careful stroke in Aronofsky’s impressive use and manipulation of our collective pop cultural knowledge of “Brendan Fraser,” former movie star. Some of my earliest memories going to the movies starred him: George of the Jungle, Dudley Do-Right, Bedazzled (released on my eighth birthday), and the Henry Selick’s 2001 masterpiece Monkeybone. If not for Monkeybone, I might not care about Fraser as much—just another casualty of sexual blacklisting, a dime a dozen, an actor molested by a member of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association in 2003. But before he went public with his accusations against the late Phil Berke, I did wonder where Fraser went every now and then.
Re-watching Monkeybone reminded me what a deceptively versatile and dynamic actor he was, however often he was misused and miscast as both dreamboats and dumb hunks. Only in Monkeybone was he able to show a little more range (although he’s perfect for Bedazzled, and in his youth might’ve excelled in screwball comedies). If not for Berke’s blacklisting, Fraser might’ve had his Punch-Drunk Love moment 20 years ago, when his friend Adam Sandler actually did. Sandler’s got two major dramatic performances behind him now, with Uncut Gems neck-and-neck with Paul Thomas Anderson’s woozy (and overrated) 2002 love story. Fraser has just now, with The Whale, gotten his chance to have the Hollywood comeback story that will surely end with a Best Actor Oscar in his hands.
The first time we see Charlie in The Whale, he’s masturbating to porn on his laptop and screaming in agony and ecstasy. Right when he cums, a young man he doesn’t know walks in and startles him, sending his phone flying to the floor and him into a near heart attack. He slams the laptop porn off and screams for the kid to read him an essay on his desk, a student paper about Moby Dick. He doesn’t die, and eventually asks who this kid (Ty Simpkins) is. “Oh, I’m Thomas and I’m here to spread the word of Jesus Christ,” the only real joke in the movie (timed perfectly). Charlie’s nurse Liz (Hong Chau) comes by shortly thereafter, followed by his estranged daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink), and eventually her mother Mary (Samantha Morton). Besides the pizza delivery guy Dan (Sathya Sridharan), these are the only characters in the film; all of the action takes place in Charlie’s house, with the camera rarely going further than the balcony.
Charlie’s killing himself via food: after leaving his wife and daughter for a man named Alan, they cut him out of their life; despite their love, Alan’s religious residue made him hate himself for being gay (his family cut him off, too). Alan ended up killing himself, and it’s later revealed that Liz only knows Charlie because Alan was her brother. Thomas the missionary isn’t a Mormon, but from some Christian cult called “New Life” that did Alan’s head in. Charlie might’ve survived Bible studies (he tells a stunned Thomas that he’s not only read “everything New Life every published,” but also The Bible “twice,” and he found it “devastating”), but it killed the love of his life. Charlie’s overeating is as much a slow suicide as those who drink themselves to death, shoot hard drugs, or stop showering and brushing their teeth. This isn’t a movie about fat people or fatness, and it certainly never makes fun of Charlie.
You may laugh at the dramatic dolly-in of a humiliated Charlie shoveling slice upon slice of pizza into his mouth with turkey and ranch dressing after finally being seen by the clearly horrified delivery driver, and you may think the dramatic score is a bit much—but Aronofsky plays this moment like an alcoholic relapsing, and it’s devastating. Dan’s heard for the first two-thirds of the movie leaving pizzas on Charlie’s porch, and they always exchange pleasantries. One day Dan asks what Charlie’s name is, and they “meet,” if only by voice. The next time Dan shows up, he waits by the stairs for Charlie to come out. He’s horrified and runs away. I can also anticipate people citing this as an example of the movie’s “fatphobia” and essential bigotry—please. Nothing could be farther from the truth: The Whale shows in painful clarity how most of the world sees overweight people as monsters, as inhuman.
What could’ve been a schmaltzy and easy meta-movie about a former star surging back for an unexpected dramatic triumph has arrived fully-formed as Aronofsky’s best film since Black Swan, the best and most nuanced film about what it means to be a “good person,” a conversation that really picked up around the 2016 presidential election. What could’ve been a significant misstep for The Whale is its incidental setting during the 2016 Republican primaries, but unlike Sean Baker’s Red Rocket and others who have shoehorned in Trump’s election in lieu of quality writing, there are only two brief mentions of the primary in The Whale, both from Charlie’s television and never mentioned by any of the characters. It’s so minor that if you go to the bathroom at the right time, you’ll have no idea when this movie takes place.
Sadie Sink is astonishing as Ellie, who comes back into Charlie’s life roaring, calling him a “fat faggot” who left her and her mom to run off with one of his students. “It was night school, Ellie, we waited until the course was over…” Charlie speaks with the sadness and clarity of someone who knows they’re about to die; more accurately, someone who knows they’re about to die by suicide. Everyone in this movie is constantly screaming at Charlie, berating him to take better care of himself, to go to the hospital, to stop doing this or that. But Charlie knows, and probably knew right when Alan died, that he was already dead, too. Every word of his is perfectly pitched, measured and honest and humble, the kindness of someone who has nothing left to lose and everything to give away. He wants Ellie to have $120,000 he’s saved up, money he never told Liz about—“I COULD’VE GOTTEN YOU A SPECIAL BED!” No, he says: that money was for Ellie. “I just need to know that I did one good thing in my life.”
And he knows it by the end: through her typical teenage machinations, she got Thomas to leave New Life and go back to his family—they’ve forgiven him. Only Charlie realizes that she did this because she wanted to help him; it might’ve been backhanded and dishonest (surreptitiously taking photos and recordings of him smoking pot and admitting to running away and doing his own form of missionary work and then posting them to Facebook), but it got him back home. This makes Charlie weep with joy, and he sobs as he tries to tell her what an amazing, perfect person she is. That essay he had Thomas read in the first scene is Ellie’s own eighth-grade analysis of Moby Dick, “the most beautiful essay” Charlie’s ever read. In one last walk, she reads it to him as he makes his way towards her and, when they meet, he looks up, levitates, sees the light, and is sent into Heaven. It’s one of the most intense and emotionally riveting endings in recent American movies, with its only comparison Paul Schrader’s First Reformed. Schrader failed with his sudden and wild deus ex machina, but here it’s as graceful and beautiful as the ending of his own Black Swan. Brendan Fraser’s performance cannot be overrated or praised too much—he’s a knockout in this movie, evoking all of the innocence, insecurity, warmth, and affability that coursed through the blockbusters he starred in decades ago. What makes The Whale such an accomplishment is its ability to transcend its equally compelling meta-narrative and stand on its own as one of the best American dramas in recent years.
—Follow Nicky Smith on Twitter: @nickyotissmith