THE WHALE (2022) is a difficult movie to like.
This is by design.
The movie opens with massively obese English professor Charlie (Brendan Fraser) masturbating to gay porn. Not exactly an image designed to get folks feeling warm and comfy in their seats. In fact, later Charlie demands from another character, “Do you find me disgusting?” and the character’s answer is yes.
On its surface, THE WHALE is about a dying housebound man trying to spend the last week of his life getting to know his estranged teenage daughter. But beneath the surface, the main theme of this movie, which is hammered home a little bit too hard, is that people in spite of how much they say they hate, really do care about other people. As Charlie says, “people are amazing!”
The problem is that nearly every character in this movie is full of hate, which is the point, of course, as Charlie says, that even these people really care. But it makes for challenging viewing because there’s just so much ugliness abound. THE WHALE is a thought-provoking movie, the type of which I really enjoy, because I prefer movies that challenge its audience to think, but that being said, it was a challenge to sit through, and I have to admit, I didn’t quite enjoy it as much as I thought I would.
There’s also a strong connection to Herman Melville’s classic novel, Moby Dick, hence the title THE WHALE, which is also a reference to Charlie’s weight, and this connection becomes stronger as the movie moves towards its conclusion.
In THE WHALE, Brendan Fraser, who was just nominated for an Oscar for this performance, plays English professor Charlie who teachers online writing classes, and because he is so obese, he keeps his camera off during these computer sessions. As he teaches, he constantly pleads with his students that the most important thing they need to do in their writing is to keep it honest, which is great advice. Charlie is in really bad shape. He’s insanely obese, can’t stand up or move without the help of a walker and eats nonstop. His friend and caregiver, Liz (Hong Chau) tells him the bad news that unless he gets himself to a hospital immediately, he will die by week’s end. Charlie pushes back, saying he has no money, and no health insurance, and he refuses to put himself in debt just to seek medical attention, so he accepts the fact that he will die within days.
As such, he does something he’s not supposed to do, which is he reaches out to his estranged daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink) hoping to make amends. Ellie is a fiery force to be reckoned with, and Charlie learns that she is failing high school, she doesn’t want to graduate, she’s been suspended, and she’s full of hate towards him. Charlie offers to pay her to visit him this week, and to write her essays for her so she can pass her class. This piques her interest, and she agrees to come back to visit him under those conditions.
Meanwhile, a young preacher named Thomas (Ty Simpkins) begins visiting Charlie, believing that it’s his destiny to save the ailing teacher before he dies. When Ellie meets Thomas, she decides to have fun with him at his expense and engages in behavior which at first seems like she is out to ruin him, as she seems to do with everyone she meets, since she hates everybody, including her father. But Charlie doesn’t believe this about his daughter and in his final days tries to connect with her and teach her that she’s not a hateful person.
There’s a lot going on in THE WHALE, most of it as uncomfortable as watching a naked obese man take a shower. But it pushes its theme forward, that people really do care about other people, in spite of the hate spewing from their mouths, which is at the end of the day, a worthwhile and inspiring message to be sure.
Samuel D. Hunter wrote the screenplay, based on his play, and this film for the most part feels like a stage play. It primarily takes place inside Charlie’s home, and it’s very talky. In fact, it’s a little too talky. At times I thought I was watching a play, not a cinematic movie.
Director Darren Aronofsky, who also directed the controversial movie MOTHER (2017), a film I liked, NOAH (2014), and BLACK SWAN (2010) keeps things simple, and as I said, there’s not a lot of cinematic showmanship going on here from the director’s chair. Although the ending is neatly done, and very dramatic.
The best part of this one are the two main performances by Brendan Fraser and Sadie Sink.
I used to enjoy Brendan Fraser’s work back in the day, and while he’s been making movies and TV shows regularly, he hasn’t really done anything major in a very long time. He was memorable in a supporting role in Steven Soderbergh’s crime thriller NO SUDDEN MOVE (2021), but here in THE WHALE, he’s the lead, and he’s really, really good. Working under heavy prosthetic make-up to make him appear gigantic, Fraser delivers the one soft-spoken and sensitive performance in a movie filled with people who are anything but. He deserves his recently announced Oscar nod.
Sadie Sink is also tremendous as his troubled fiery daughter, Ellie. Sink, of course, is known for her role as Max on the hit Netflix TV show STRANGER THINGS (2016-present). Since she joined the show in its second season, she’s consistently been one of its best performers, and she had two of the best scenes in the series last season. In THE WHALE, Charlie keeps calling his daughter “amazing!” and really, the same can be said of Sadie Sink’s performance here. She’s lively, spiteful, funny, and completely unpredictable. I hope that Sink continues to get more movie roles, and that they become larger and more significant. She’s a promising talent.
Ty Simpkins plays the very white Wonder Bread preacher, and he gets bossed around and dominated by nearly every character in this film, especially by Ellie. Simpkins, as a child actor, played young Dalton who gets abducted by a demon in one of my favorite horror movies of the past twenty years, INSIDIOUS (2010). Simpkins also played the boy who Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark befriends in IRON MAN 3 (2013).
Hong Chau (also just nominated for an Oscar) is very good as Charlie’s friend and caretaker, Liz. Later in the movie we learn why she is so close to Charlie, as they are connected by another tragedy. This is the second straight strong performance by Chau, as we just saw her in THE MENU (2022), where she was outstanding as Elsa, the loyal right-hand person to Ralph Fiennes’s fanatical Chef Slowik.
And Samantha Morton is memorable as Charlie’s ex-wife and Ellie’s mom, Mary, another character who spews hate with her words and actually calls her daughter, “evil.” While Morton plays a somewhat coarse character here, the role is nowhere near as dark as the role she played on THE WALKING DEAD (2010-2022), where she played the murderous Alpha.
One thing the film doesn’t speak much on is obesity itself. This isn’t the point of the movie, and so Charlie eats tremendous portions of extremely unhealthy foods unchecked. Even Liz continually brings him fattening subs and sandwiches, with no discussion about healthier eating. But I think this is pretty much understood. For example, there’s a scene where Charlie is voraciously chowing down nonstop on two large pizzas, shoving slice after slice into his mouth, and I’m sitting there watching doing the same with a bucket of popcorn. I had to push the bucket away.
The connection to Moby Dick is an interesting one and stems from an essay which Charlie repeatedly reads throughout the movie. The writer of the essay is refreshingly honest in their understanding of the novel, which is one of the reasons Charlie keeps reading it, and one of its sentiments is that the writer feels sad for Ahab who believes wrongly that he can only be made happy by killing the whale, and also for the whale, who has done nothing wrong but is victimized by the obsessed Ahab. The writer then says that the long chapters in the novel which are just facts about whales were written because the author, Melville, was too sad to return to the story.
Like Ahab, people mistake what they need for happiness. Like the whale, people are victimized for no apparent reason. And like Melville, people often abandon things because they are too sad to continue.
Charlie sees all this in the essay, and he tries to get his daughter to see this as well, especially in terms of why he left her and her mother, and then stayed away, because the tragedies in his life made him too sad to continue.
While THE WHALE may not be easy viewing for most people, its thought-provoking story has a lot to offer its viewers. When asked by Charlie, “do you find me disgusting?” you have to be willing to answer no.
And mean it.
I give THE WHALE three stars.
Four stars- Excellent
Three stars- Very Good
Two stars- Fair
One star- Poor
Zero Stars- Awful