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Brendan Fraser in a scene from The Whale.Courtesy of Elevation Pictures

  • The Whale
  • Directed by Darren Aronofsky
  • Written by Samuel D. Hunter
  • Starring Brendan Fraser, Hong Chau and Sadie Sink
  • Classification R; 117 minutes
  • Opens in theatres Dec. 21

The other week, Roxane Gay’s New York Times essay on the “cruel spectacle” of Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale did the expected and went viral. For those paying even half-careful attention to the press cycle of The Whale, a moment like this felt inevitable. Ever since word came around that the polarizing director of Black Swan and Mother! was making a movie starring Brendan Fraser as a 600-lb. recluse named Charlie who is eating himself to death, a backlash started brewing. In Gay’s piece, the writer takes Aronofsky and company to task for their “gratuitous, self-aggrandizing” fatphobic fiction, centering her criticism on “the disdain the filmmakers” have for Charlie, which she writes is “constant, inescapable.”

It is a strongly written piece, fiery and lucid. It also presents such a backward interpretation of what is depicted on screen that I cannot help but wonder if Gay – and others who have latched onto similar arguments – actually watched The Whale in its entirety. This is not an “inhumane film about a very human being,” but rather the opposite: a highly compassionate look at a man struggling with compulsions, a character study that puts its lead under a spotlight of care and tenderness. Charlie is not treated as a freak or object of ridicule, but rather a person in dire need of help, and understanding. The Whale is not an exercise in gawking or finger-wagging – “as exploitative as any episode of TLC’s My 600-lb Life” – but an attempt to examine dignity and humanity under pressure.

Gay’s piece, and the roiling online conversations that followed, have been so frustrating to witness that it almost makes me want to praise Aronofsky’s film without reservations – which I cannot do, because, well, The Whale is not all that great a movie. Not because of the arguments that Gay and others have made, but rather because Aronofsky cannot unearth the necessary cinema in this adaptation of Samuel D. Hunter’s play. The Whale is not a cruel spectacle – it is just a dull, repetitive one.

Set almost entirely in Charlie’s dank apartment, The Whale follows the English professor over the course of several days as he teaches his students online (keeping his camera off), fends off the help of his closest friend (Hong Chau), entertains the salvation sermons of a local missionary (Ty Simpkins), and attempts a reunion with his estranged teenage daughter (Sadie Sink).

But with a posturing screenplay by Hunter and a fixed location that feels underused even by its purposefully tiny standards, Aronofsky’s drama is an incredibly, frustratingly stagy thing to witness. Certainly, by staying with the confines of Charlie’s depressing apartment – dimly lit and poorly kept, pizza boxes and other junk-food detritus piling up in corners – the director is conjuring an atmosphere that illustrates Charlie’s own fatalistic sense of being trapped within himself.

But the film never even metaphorically moves around, with its characters merely circling each other over and over, delivering faux-insightful banter about regret and renewal. (That whale of the title? Why it’s both Charlie and a reference to his favourite student essay about Moby Dick.) Meanwhile, the moments of high drama that do infrequently arrive – such as when one character’s backstory reveals itself, or when Charlie’s ex-wife (Samantha Morton) arrives – don’t energize the film so much as they simply prolong it.

Still: The one overwhelmingly positive thing that you’ve heard about The Whale is true: Fraser does a remarkable job. Playing Charlie under layers and layers of next-generation prosthetics – if we’re to get rid of fat suits, as Gay urges in her piece, we should do away with all kinds of makeup and costumery going forward, no? – Fraser not only brings a level of tenderness to the proceedings but genuine excitement and spirit. By channelling heretofore unseen depths of emotional strength, Fraser accomplishes something far more impressive than simply resurrecting his career – he resurrects his own moribund movie, which without him would evaporate.

While Chau and Morton are just as good as their comeback-kid co-star – tough and mad and boiling with grief, the both of them – the rest of the cast are failed by both Hunter’s deadening dialogue and Aronofsky’s static direction, which is seemingly focused solely on Fraser. Simpkins cannot help but annoy in a role that is meant to be at least mildly sympathetic, while Sink turns her petulant teenager into someone impossibly shrill and embarrassing to stomach. It is simply one of the most unpleasant performances I’ve had to witness all year long. Now where are all the essays and think-pieces about that?

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