The Whale is Darren Aronofsky's latest film, and it's a hectoring invitation to blubber.
The festival's biggest and most surprising disappointment is Darren Aronofsky's bland, lame, and staged film, adapted by Samuel D. Hunter from his own 2012 play: the script bumps along, the narrative is contrived and unconvincing, and the entire film has a strange pass-agg body language, as if it were handling its own painful subject with kid gloves and demanding that we do the same.
Brendan Fraser plays Charlie, an English instructor in charge of a Zoom-based online study course. He tells the group that his laptop's camera is broken, which is why the box on the screen where his face should be is blank.
Charlie is morbidly obese, a massive accumulation of Jabba the Hutt-like flesh, barely able to leave the sofa with a walker to go to the restroom, eating, delivering pizza and fried chicken, with a hoard of candy bars in his desk drawer. Charlie is initially seen masturbating to gay p*rn, which leads to a heart attack that almost kills him.
But this isn't an ironic black comedy, and Charlie isn't supposed to be greedy, lazy, or selfish (though those callous arguments do not really come up). He is melancholy as a result of the death of his partner, a former community university student for whom he abandoned his wife and little kid; an abandonment for which he still feels guilty.
Charlie's lone companion is his late partner's sister Liz (Hong Chau), a severe nurse who is irritated by his unwillingness to visit the hospital. His delicate, lonely existence is compounded further when a strange young guy, Thomas (Ty Simpkins), a Christian missionary from the church where Charlie's spouse was a member, comes up at his home. Ellie (Sadie Sink), his furious, torn daughter, also appears to want to bond.
Add to it Charlie's love of literature, particularly Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, and Charlie is well aware that he is the whale, the colossal bloated beast that no one wants to pursue, obsess over, or even consider. Perhaps Charlie is drowning in loneliness, looking for the illusive meaning of his own broken existence.
Fraser plays Charlie with gentleness and candour, and his performance is good, though it is overshadowed by the flashy latex and special effects, which are there to evoke a mix of horror, compassion, and award-winning love, like a very serious male version of the "Fat Monica" ball video scene in Friends.
Charlie's lovely saintliness has an unreal shine to it; the obsessive symphonic music emphasizes his emotional need and wounded niceness, and the film's image of death is sentimental and even covertly religious.
The actual issue, though, is the labyrinthine narrative around Charlie: the bizarre and unbelievable intrigues behind Thomas' past and Ellie's dissatisfaction and terrible attitude, which are all portrayed obliquely and awkwardly.
To the end, Charlie trusts in Ellie's inherent kindness, but any perceived uncertainty regarding her motives and behavior is disappointing and boring. Fraser gives a sincere performance as Charlie, and Hong Chau adds a welcome fierceness and yearning to the drama, but this sugary film is severely underpowered.