The Whale movie review & film summary (2022) | Roger Ebert (2024)

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The Whale movie review & film summary (2022) | Roger Ebert (1)

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"The Whale" is an abhorrent film, but it also features excellent performances.

It gawks at the grotesquerie of its central figure beneath the guise of sentimentality, but it also offers sharp exchanges between its characters that ring with bracing honesty.

It's the kind of film you should probably see if only to have an informed, thoughtful discussion about it, but it's also one you probably won't want to watch.

This aligns it with Darren Aronofsky's movies in general, which can often be a challenging sit. The director is notorious for putting his actors (and his audiences) through the wringer, whether it's Jennifer Connolly's drug addict in "Requiem for a Dream," Mickey Rourke's aging athlete in "The Wrestler," Natalie Portman's obsessed ballerina in "Black Swan," or Jennifer Lawrence's besieged wife in "mother!" (For the record, I'm a fan of Aronofsky's work in general.)

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But the difference between those films and "The Whale" is their intent, whether it's the splendor of their artistry or the thrill of their provocation. There's a verve to those movies, an unpredictability, an undeniable daring, and a virtuoso style. They feature images you've likely never seen before or since, but they'll undoubtedly stay with you afterward.

"The Whale" may initiallyfeelgentler, but its main point seems to be sticking the camera in front of Brendan Fraser, encased in a fat suit that makes him appear to weigh 600 pounds, and asking us to wallow in his deterioration. In theory, we are meant to pity him or at least find sympathy for his physical and psychological plight by the film's conclusion. But in reality, the overall vibe is one of morbid fascination for this mountain of a man. Here he is, knocking over an end table as he struggles to get up from the couch; there he is, cramming candy bars in his mouth as he Googles "congestive heart failure." We can tsk-tsk all we like between our mouthfuls of popcorn and Junior Mints while watching Fraser's Charlie gobble greasy fried chicken straight from the bucket or inhale agiantmeatball sub with such alacrity that he nearly chokes to death. The message "The Whale" sends us home withseems to be: Thank God that's not us.

In working from Samuel D. Hunter's script, based on Hunter's stage play, Aronofsky doesn't appear to be as interested in understanding these impulses and indulgences as much as pointing and staring at them. His depiction of Charlie's isolation within his squalid Idaho apartment includes a scene of him masturbating to gay p*rn with such gusto that he almost has a heart attack, a moment made of equal parts shock value and shame. But then, in a jarring shift, the tone eventually turns maudlin with Charlie's increasing martyrdom.

Within the extremes of this approach, Fraser brings more warmth and humanity to the role than he's afforded on the page. We hear his voice first; Charlie is a college writing professor who teaches his students online from behind the safety of a black square. And it's such a welcoming and resonant sound, full of decency and humor. Fraser's been away for a while, but his contradictions have always made him an engaging screen presence—the contrastof his imposing physique and playful spirit. He does so much with his eyes here to give us a glimpse into Charlie's sweet but tortured soul, and the subtlety he's able to convey goes a long way toward making "The Whale" tolerable.

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But he's also saddled with a screenplay that spells out every emotion in ways that are so clunky as to be groan-inducing. At Charlie's most desperate, panicky moments, he soothes himself by reading or reciting a student's beloved essay on Moby Dick, which—in part—gives the film its title and will take on increasing significance. He describes the elusive white whale of Herman Melville's novel as he stands up, shirtless, and lumbers across the living room, down the hall, and toward the bedroomwith a walker. At this moment, you're meant to marvel at the elaborate makeup and prosthetic work on display; you're more likely to roll your eyes at the writing.

"He thinks his life will be better if he can just kill this whale, but in reality, it won't help him at all," he intones in a painfully obvious bit of symbolism. "This book made me think about my own life," he adds as if we couldn't figure that out for ourselves.

A few visitors interrupt the loneliness of his days, chiefly Hong Chau as his nurse and longtime friend, Liz. She's deeply caring but also no-nonsense, providing a crucial spark to these otherwise dour proceedings. Aronofsky's longtime cinematographer, the brilliant Matthew Libatique, has lit Charlie's apartment in such a relentlessly dark and dim fashion to signify his sorrow that it's oppressive. Once you realize the entirety of the film will take place within these cramped confines, it sends a shiver of dread. And the choice to tell this story in the boxy, 1.33 aspect ratio further heightens its sense of dour claustrophobia.

But then "Stranger Things" star Sadie Sink arrives as Charlie's rebellious, estranged daughter, Ellie; her mom was married to Charlie before he came out as a gay man. While their first meeting in many years is laden with exposition about the pain and awkwardness of their time apart, the two eventually settle into an interesting, prickly rapport. Sink brings immediacy and accessibility to the role of the sullen but bright teenager, and her presence, like Chau's, improves "The Whale" considerably. Her casting is also spot-on in her resemblance to Fraser, especially in her expressive eyes.

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The arrival of yet another visitor—an earnest, insistent church missionary played by Ty Simpkins—feels like a total contrivance, however. Allowing him inside the apartment repeatedly makes zero sense, even within the context that Charlie believes he's dying and wants to make amends. He even says to this sweet young man: "I'm not interested in being saved." And yet, the exchanges between Sink and Simpkins provide some much-needed life and emotional truth. The subplot about their unlikely friendship feels like something from a totally different movie and a much more interesting one.

Instead, Aronofsky insists on veering between cruelty and melodrama, with Fraser stuck in the middle, a curiosity on display.

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Film Credits

The Whale movie review & film summary (2022) | Roger Ebert (9)

The Whale (2022)

Rated Rfor language, some drug use and sexual content.

117 minutes

Cast

Brendan Fraseras Charlie

Sadie Sinkas Ellie

Hong Chauas Liz

Ty Simpkinsas Thomas

Samantha Mortonas Mary

Sathya Sridharanas Dan

Director

  • Darren Aronofsky

Writer (based on the play by)

  • Samuel D. Hunter

Writer

  • Samuel D. Hunter

Cinematographer

  • Matthew Libatique

Editor

  • Andrew Weisblum

Composer

  • Rob Simonsen

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The Whale movie review & film summary (2022) | Roger Ebert (2024)

FAQs

The Whale movie review & film summary (2022) | Roger Ebert? ›

"The Whale" may initially feel gentler, but its main point seems to be sticking the camera in front of Brendan Fraser

Brendan Fraser
Brendan James Fraser (/ˈfreɪzər/ FRAY-zər; born December 3, 1968) is an American-Canadian actor. Fraser had his breakthrough in 1992 with the comedy Encino Man and the drama School Ties.
https://en.wikipedia.org › wiki › Brendan_Fraser
, encased in a fat suit that makes him appear to weigh 600 pounds, and asking us to wallow in his deterioration.

What is the storyline for The Whale? ›

What is the main message in the movie The Whale? ›

The film suggests redemption has to be earned... but that it must also come from the desire to make amends. The Whale ending explored Charlie's desire to help Ellie find happiness before he dies. This is the only way he feels will absolve him of his past mistakes.

What is so great about the movie The Whale? ›

Held together by a killer Brendan Fraser, The Whale sings a song of empathy that will leave most viewers blubbering. With a heartbreaking story brought powerfully to life by Brendan Fraser's starring performance, The Whale's as hard to watch as it is to look away from.

What is controversial about the movie The Whale? ›

Why is The Whale being accused of fatphobia? Some of the film's critics believe it perpetuates tired tropes of fat people as suffering, chronically depressed and binge eating.

Is The Whale hard to watch? ›

The Whale is difficult to watch, not because of Charlie's size but because it feels as if he is treated as a grotesque, something to be disgusted by, a monster with a heart of gold.

Why is Ellie so mean in The Whale? ›

Having grown angry at the world due to him abandoning her and her mother for his late boyfriend Alan, she acts hostile and abusive to anyone she comes close to and wants absolutely nothing to do with Charlie, who makes efforts to try and reconnect with her.

Why did Charlie eat so much in The Whale? ›

Charlie eats to sadly harm himself. He is the manifestation of trauma. That what he puts into his body for all that harm that he has endured all his life, he's been derided. It's manifest on who he is as a human being, that's a lot of pain for this man.

Is The Whale based on a true story? ›

The Whale is not a true story but is based on a 2012 play by Samuel D. Hunter, who also wrote the film. Dale Calandra played the original Charlie in a similar transformation to Fraser's for The Whale movie, during the play's original run at the Victory Gardens Biograph Theater in Chicago.

Why doesn't Charlie go to the hospital? ›

Charlie refuses to go, citing the fact that he has no money and can't afford the hospital bills.

Was Liz an enabler in The Whale? ›

Liz – She is a nurse. Hodgins called her Charlie's "enabler" because she feeds him junk food despite his enormous weight and her own pleading with him to get better medical care. Ellie – Charlie and Mary's daughter.

Is The Whale an uplifting movie? ›

REVIEW: 'The Whale' portrays a distressing but ultimately uplifting story enhanced by fantastic performances. Brendan Fraser as Christopher in “The Whale.” Despite being a fantastic film, “The Whale” leaves the audience with no desire to watch it again anytime soon.

Why is The Whale rated R? ›

Rated R for language, some drug use and sexual content.

Why is The Whale getting bad reviews? ›

Herein lies the source of tension in the critical response to The Whale: while Fraser's performance in particular is stunning, the controversial handling of fatness coupled with a style that some critics found overwrought made the movie dismissible.

Does Charlie lose weight in the movie The Whale? ›

In The Whale, however, Charlie does not lose weight; the transformation goes in the opposite direction: he gets bigger and bigger, suffering a slow and painful physical breakdown. As I watched the film, I started to understand, with a looming sense of dread, that The Whale had no plans to recuperate this character.

How did Brendan Fraser lose all his weight? ›

Emphasizing whole, nutrient-rich foods over processed options, Fraser's approach underscores the adage "you are what you eat." His diet focused on lean proteins, vegetables, fruits, and whole grains, facilitating not just weight loss but improved overall health.

Is The Whale movie based on a true story? ›

No – the film is not based on a true story and is almost completely a work of fiction, even if writer Samuel D Hunter has said that certain aspects of the plot are semi-autobiographical.

What is the tragedy in The Whale movie? ›

Does Charlie die in The Whale? The final moments of the film certainly indicate that Charlie has died in his attempt to walk unassisted to his daughter Ellie as she reads him his favourite essay - one she himself wrote. The ending is similar to the play on which the film is based, written by Samuel D Hunter.

Why did Ellie break the plate in The Whale? ›

Charlie believes that Ellie thought that the food dish was drawing the bird away from its family, so she broke the dish to send the bird back home. This fills him with emotion because he sees it as proof that Ellie is a good person.

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