[Screen It]


(2022) (Brendan Fraser, Hong Chau) (R)

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Drama: A severely obese man who's dying from congestive heart failure tries to reconnect with his estranged teenage daughter.

Charlie (BRENDAN FRASER) is a severely obese writing instructor who teaches classes online, although without the camera on so that his students can't see him. His only friend seems to be Liz (HONG CHAU), a medical professional who drops in every day to check on him. She's worried about him having congestive heart failure, but he refuses to go to the ER or see anyone about that.

She isn't pleased to find Thomas (TY SIMPKINS), a young and eager missionary in Charlie's place, what with having been adopted into the family that started the ministry where Thomas works. She also doesn't want him to see his teenage daughter, Ellie (SADIE SINK), who he abandoned in the past along with his then-wife, Mary (SAMANTHA MORTON), for one of his male students.

But Charlie wants to connect with Ellie and thus offers to help her with her high school writing assignments, something the bitter teen only agrees to when Charlie says he'll pay her. As he tries to reconnect with her and with repeat visits by Thomas, Charlie must contend with his failing health.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10

There's no denying that there's an obesity epidemic in America that's taking a toll not only on those it affects, but also society as a whole in a variety of ways. And it's indicative of a more sedentary lifestyle than in generations in the past, strained mental health issues among so many people, and the role that junk food -- which such suffering people use for immediate (but not long-term) relief and gratification -- has in all of that.

Yes, many people drown their sorrows in booze and drugs to get that immediate dopamine hit (which then causes the brain to crave more), but more do so with crappy food that essentially delivers the same chemical/hormonal reaction. Yes, there's truth in both the real world and in cinematic representations thereof for moments where people react to a romantic breakup or some sort of similar emotional stress by eating a gallon of ice cream.

Smothering one's sorrows in junk food is just one of many themes at play in director Darren Aronofsky's "The Whale." It's an offering that will likely polarize critics and audiences alike due to those themes, the basic storyline, and particularly the sight and treatment of the lead character played by Brendan Fraser.

Donning a "fat suit" that's nothing short of state of the art for such movie prosthetics, Fraser sheds, so to speak, his past trim athletic build that made him a movie star in the lead role in "The Mummy" films in exchange for a portrayal that should easily earn him an Oscar nomination -- and maybe even a win.

He plays Charlie, a reclusive online writing instructor who easily weighs well north of four hundred pounds and never has his camera on for his Zoom-type meetings with his students. With food dropped off by both the pizza delivery guy and Charlie's medical professional friend, Liz (Hong Chau), who otherwise warns him of his likely early demise from congestive heart failure, the man seems intent on both relieving his pain through those dopamine spikes and also slowly committing suicide over his past failures and tragedies.

As the story by screenwriter Samuel D. Hunter unfolds (with the writer adapting his 2012 stage play of the same name), we come to learn about those demons, some through his interactions with a young missionary, Thomas (Ty Simpkins), who shows up intent on saving Charlie's soul since doing so for his physical presence seems too late.

The others come from Charlie's troubled and estranged teenage daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink), who he abandoned -- along with the girl's mother/his wife (Samantha Morton) -- in favor of one of his male students, but now wants to reconnect with while he still has the time. As all that plays out, and with everyone's reaction to Charlie's physical appearance and health status, the film's themes of forgiveness, compassion, mental and physical health, and, yes, fat shaming, simultaneously share the stage.

Oh, and there's a recurring element related to Herman Melville's "Moby Dick" and its white whale character -- thus our title here (in addition to the derogatory slang regarding an obese person) -- with Charlie reciting or having someone read an essay about that whenever he's suffering from severe angina.

The film certainly teeters on the precipice of being offensive to some regarding its portrayal of the obese (although it clearly makes Charlie an empathetic character) and the dialogue can, at times, be a bit on the nose and come off sounding more like a stage play than a movie.

But the performances are good across the board (especially from Fraser who should earn every male lead acting award this year) and the film certainly delivers an emotional wallop, particularly at the end. Not an easy watch but one worth seeing, "The Whale" rates as a 7 out of 10.

Posted December 21, 2022

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