Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel
In 2012, Samuel D. Hunter’s The Whale premiered off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons. It won both the Drama Desk and the Lucille Lortel Awards for Outstanding Play. Hunter has adapted his play for the screen in a compelling film directed by Darren Aronofsky.
The film opens with Charlie, a morbidly obese college professor, teaching online from his Idaho apartment. While Charlie urges his students to write from a place of truth and honesty, he leaves his camera off so they cannot see who he really is. His friend Liz, a nurse with personal ties to Charlie’s history, urges him to go to the hospital as he is bordering on congestive heart failure. Charlie refuses, citing a lack of health insurance and the fear of incurring huge debts.
Charlie spends his days grading papers, eating, and struggling with declining health. Thomas, a missionary from the New Life Church, visits, attempting to bring him to God. Charlie’s only other outside interaction is with the Gambino’s pizza delivery man, Dan, with whom he speaks through the closed door.
Knowing that his time is limited, Charlie reaches out to his estranged daughter, Ellie. Charlie had not seen the girl since he left her and her mother, Mary, for Alan, one of his continuing ed students.
A dysfunctional family drama ensues that touches on depression, suicide, religion, money, and homophobia. For the screenplay, Hunter hewed closely to his original work. The play was set entirely in Charlie’s living room, and Aronofsky wisely opts to keep most of the action in the dark, cluttered room, only opening up to the apartment’s additional rooms and the porch (though Charlie never goes beyond the threshold).
The film is not subtle in its storytelling and metaphors. The titular “whale” refers to Moby Dick—both Charlie and a student essay he rereads obsessively. Nevertheless, The Whale derives strength from exceptional performances from its ensemble cast.
The connection between Liz and Charlie is central to his survival, and Hong Chau balances her love and frustration as Charlie’s only direct contact with the outside world. She frets over his health but is a not-so unwitting enabler. Sadie Sink brings multiple shades of anger and darkness to Ellie, showing her pain but also an almost sadistic need to manipulate.
Ty Simpkins, as Thomas, avoids cliché and makes the later revelations valid and believable. Samantha Morton appears in one scene, imbuing Mary, the alcoholic ex-wife, with the right sense of hurt and damage. But, at the center of the film is Brendan Fraser as Charlie.
Fraser’s early career included Dogfight (1991), Encino Man (1992), and School Ties (1992). He is best known for The Mummy series (1999, 2001, 2008), with other movies ranging from Dudley Do-Right (1999) and Blast from the Past (1999) to Journey to the Center of the Earth (2008) and No Sudden Move (2021). Certainly, none of these prepare audiences for the heartbreaking depth of this performance.
Going beyond the physical challenges, Fraser makes Charlie a complicated figure. He alternates between a resigned need to apologize—his litany of “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry …”—and a passionate desire to see the good in people (specifically, the mercenary Ellie, who may or may not warrant this faith).
Harrowing moments include a choking fit and a pizza binge—each horrifying and gut-wrenching in its own way. But they are no more painful than Ellie’s malevolent, “I’m not spending time with you. You’re disgusting.” And his cry, “Who would want me to be a part of their life?” Even his struggle to stand and cross the room resonates with a deep hurt. Fraser never loses sight of Charlie’s humanity, creating a dimensional, unforgettable performance.
Fraser has already won twenty awards, an equal number of additional nominations, and another dozen pending, including the Oscar for Best Actor.
However, the film has been in the crosshairs of two controversies. Fraser’s casting required him to wear nearly three hundred pounds of prosthetics. This raised questions about why a more appropriately sized actor was not selected. (Shuler Hensley, who appeared in The Whale off-Broadway, was also heavily padded for the role.)
In addition, the character itself has stoked ire in various sectors. “Some of the film’s critics believe it perpetuates tired tropes of fat people as suffering, chronically depressed and binge eating.” (Time Magazine, December 9, 2022) Appropriately, Aronofsky’s career has included a range of controversial films, including Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan, Noah, and Mother!
These challenges aside, the film and its key performance are more than worthy of viewing. At its heart, The Whale asks: Can anyone save anyone? The Whale is a disturbing, extraordinary exploration that leaves the question unanswered.
Rated R, the film is now playing in local theaters.