The Whale Review

PLOT: Charlie (Brendan Fraser) is an 800-pound online English teacher suffering congestive heart failure. Knowing his time is limited, he refuses his caregiver’s (Hong Chau) demand that he go to a hospital, choosing instead to spend his remaining time trying to reconnect with his estranged daughter (Sadie Sink).

REVIEW: Darren Aronofsky is one of the most challenging directors working today. For many of us, his movies are singular experiences, meaning they rock us to our core to such an extent that we tend to only watch them once, or at least with significant intervals between screenings. The Whale is as good of a movie as anything he’s ever done, but it’s also one of his most achingly sad, challenging works.

The hype around Brendan Fraser’s comeback is real, with him delivering a stunning performance as Charlie. Resigned to his ultimate fate, he’s tortured by his failings as a father. He left his wife and daughter for a man, only for his partner to eventually die under tragic circumstances, leading to Charlie’s current predicament. Consumed by grief and self-loathing, he eats and eats, with the movie never sparing us his junk food binges (which are presented with the inevitability of a junkie getting a fix) as he spirals towards his ultimate fate.

What makes The Whale so achingly sad is that Charlie is actually a wonderful guy. He’s made some mistakes in life, but he was a kind, devoted partner, to the extent that the man’s sister, a nurse (Hong Chau), has become his dedicated caregiver and friend. Fraser radiates intelligence as a teacher who, despite his dire straits, still tries to inspire a passion for writing in his students. Ashamed of his appearance, he keeps his camera off but is committed to his students.

Neither Aronofsky nor Fraser holds back, with the no holds barred nature of The Whale being established right from our introduction to Charlie. We find him masturbating furiously to porn before suffering a cardiac event, all the while an “end of times” missionary drops in on him. The episode and his blood pressure rating convince him that his time is limited, sparking his desperate need to reconnect with his daughter. Fraser plays Charlie as desperate to do something good with his life, but he also beams with intelligence and wit. You don’t pity him, no matter how dire things get. You get the idea that Charlie is where he wants to be to some degree. He’s addicted to food but also trying to eat himself to death. Photos on the wall show us that Charlie was always heavy but only got into the state he’s in now after his beloved partner passed.

Fraser has arguably never had a better showcase. Many have criticized the premise, but Fraser brings a lot of humanity to the part. The “fat suit,” which is a combination of practical work and CGI, and to its credit, he never looks like he’s wearing a suit. Most importantly, he never loses his dignity, a testament to his bold, courageous performance.

While a star showcase for Fraser, he’s not the only one in The Whale who delivers devastating work. Stranger Things star Sadie Sink will emerge from this as perhaps the next big thing, with her delivering a shattering performance as Charlie’s angry daughter, Ellie, who treats her father with rage and cruelty, all of which he receives with patience and a smile. Sink evokes that Ellie isn’t merely angry; she’s damaged by how she was abandoned and isn’t keen to let Charlie off the hook. She also delights in tormenting Ty Simpkins’ Thomas; a missionary bent on “saving” Charlie’s soul.

Hong Chau, who was also a standout in The Menu, is perhaps the kindest person in the film, even if she’s as angry as Ellie in her way. She enables Charlie by bringing him junk food but is desperate for him to go to a hospital, despite his pleas that, considering he has no insurance, he would only sink into debt (“better in debt than dead,” she pleads). Samantha Morton also has a single powerhouse seen as Charlie’s bitter but essentially empathetic ex-wife, who warns him their daughter is “a terror.”

One thing worth noting is that The Whale is based on a play (Samuel D. Hunter), and its stage origins are evident, with the whole movie taking place in one location. However, Aronofsky and DP Matthew Libatique use the opportunity to make the film feel strikingly intimate, with the narrow 1:33:1 aspect ratio helping in that regard. The score by Rob Simonsen is another strong showing for the up-and-coming composer and adds to the atmosphere.

While grim, I’d stop short of calling The Whale depressing, with poignant perhaps a more appropriate description. It’s gut-wrenching and occasionally challenging, but it’s also extremely well-crafted and sports some incredible performances, with Fraser a lock for serious awards consideration. The Whale is the start of a significant comeback, although it’s bittersweet in that it took Hollywood so long to give him a role that was worthy of his talent like this.

The Whale



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About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.