The Whale Review: Brendan Fraser Shines In A Derivative Darren Aronofsky Film [Venice]

A man pushing his body to physical extremes knows he's on his last leg. Plagued by regret, he reaches out to his long-estranged daughter who wants little to do with the man who abandoned her in pursuit of his own adulation. All the while, the man receives emotional support from a patient female service worker who supplies encouragement and exasperation in equal measure as she watches this decision's toll on both his body and soul.

Such is the plot of Darren Aronofsky's "The Whale." But if that description sounds familiar, it's also the rough contours of his previous film "The Wrestler." Like a moth drawn to a fast-burning flame in its final flickering moments, the filmmaker returns to further explore his obsession. Brendan Fraser's dangerously obese Charlie is yet another Aronfosky protagonist pushing the limits of the human body and learning the pursuant psychological strain on the soil.

But unlike Randy "The Ram" Robinson from "The Wrestler" or Nina Sayers in "Black Swan," characters who seek mastery in their field by humbling themselves at the altar of the human form, Charlie represents their inverse. "I let it get out of control," he offers as an off-handed explanation for the weight gain that renders him all but immobile. "The Whale" makes for an intriguing, if not particularly innovative, investigation of the flesh's inescapable needs that always supersede individual will.

A clever turn from Brendan Fraser

The parallels between "The Whale" and "The Wrestler" only continue when factoring in the meta-casting of the films. Fraser, not unlike Mickey Rourke in 2008, arrives to the role laden with metatextual baggage. Both actors were massive stars and sex symbols in their heyday yet slipped out of the limelight as they began to age. What Aronofsky provides them is a vessel for redemption on-screen that mirrors their comeback off it. Their characters seek nothing short of rebirth by shedding the shackles of their physical form and ascending to a state of heavenly ecstasy.

Such stunt casting, leveraging the persona as well as the person, is always a delicate balance. It asks the viewer to supply the film with additional meaning based on their associations with the star. "The Whale" never quite finds that equilibrium, asking the audience to lean into their affection for Fraser far too much to provide the film's gravitas. It's tough to watch, for example, as Charlie's laughter curdles into pain, but the film does little work to make the audience wink. It's a blank void that requires trading on memories of Fraser's infectious laughter in previous works to have any meaning.

The film does manage to find some delicate grace notes when Aronofsky lets Fraser be Fraser. Underneath all the prosthetics — "my internal organs are two feet in, at least," he jokes when his nurse Liz (Hong Chau) emptily threatens to stab him in frustration — is the same uncommonly earnest, open-hearted star who won over audiences in the '90s. He'll knowingly betray Charlie's sense of self-loathing in a stolen wink or smile to defuse a moment, hints of the star and man underneath. The gentleness of Fraser's soul slowly emerges as a powerful counterweight to the brutality of the condition consuming him.

Yet these sly nods do not accumulate with the same prominence as the physical tics required to sell just how dangerously close Charlie teeters to his death. Every panting, wheezing, sweating bit of exertion required to perform a simple task becomes a way to draw attention to how effortful Fraser's performance is. When it comes time for Fraser's delivery of the character's guiding ethos — "I need to know that I have done something right with my life" — the moment feels robbed of impact by the film's lack of emotional momentum.

Bland beyond Brendan Fraser

"The Whale" does not gawk at its central character's physical state, though showing a sense of compassion is frankly table stakes for such a project. Aronofsky and director of photography Matthew Libatique, with whom he's collaborated since his debut feature, show remarkably little imagination in visualizing the story's single location of Charlie's apartment. The nondescript photography mires the film in the theatrical origins of Samuel D. Hunter's script, adapted from his own play of the same name. A chamber piece is not inherently a lesser work of art, but it's a disappointingly bland result given the creativity with which the director and cinematographer conveyed confinement and claustrophobia in films like "mother!" or "Requiem for a Dream."

A charitable explanation is that Aronofsky wants to let the focus remain on the award-winning dialogue of Hunter's screenplay. Fraser's always interesting and varied in his delivery, yet the rest of the cast (save Samantha Morton as Charlie's ex-wife in one brief appearance) is quite monotonous. The worst culprit is Sadie Sink as Ellie, Charlie's perpetually put-out daughter giving every line reading at a frenziedly furious pitch. Sink gratingly belabors the character's insolence and becomes quite excruciating to watch. But she is effective insofar as she draws out her father's innate virtues of kindness, honesty, and self-sacrifice — the latter element of which becomes holds the keys to their potential reconciliation.

Great filmmakers frequently circle pet subjects, but Aronofsky's repeated excursions into the realm of bodily mortification and emotional debasement are showing signs of diminishing returns. "The Whale" stays too intellectual in its exploration of the physical and spiritual dimensions of redemption to and from bodily captivity. This comes at the expense of the director's strengths in the visceral realm. It restricts what could have been a truly great comeback performance from Brendan Fraser into being merely a good one.

/Film rating: 6 out of 10