Teacher on a path to self-destruction

Brendan Fraser plays the reclusive Charlie in The Whale. (Photo courtesy of A24)

By Richard Ades

When Charlie leads an online English class with his own image blacked out, he tells his students it’s because his camera doesn’t work. But we intuitively know that’s a lie.

The teacher (Brendan Fraser), whose obesity confines him to his house and usually his couch, is ashamed of who he’s become. As the story unfolds, we learn that his shame is based on more than simply his 600-pound body.

Directed by Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan, The Wrestler) from the script Samuel D. Hunter adapted from his own stage play, The Whale is a maddening but sometimes compelling portrait of a man who refuses to slow his descent into death. His only friend, a nurse named Liz (Hong Chau), pleads with him to go to the hospital to head off imminent heart failure, but Charlie refuses. His excuse is that he has no insurance and would only go into debt.

Hong Chau as Liz, Charlie’s nurse and only friend (Photo courtesy of A24)

The truth is that Charlie doesn’t care whether he lives or dies. All he really cares about is reconnecting with his daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink), from whom he’s been estranged ever since his wife divorced him due to a gay affair. Yet when he somehow persuades the teenager to pay a visit, she turns out to be so angry at him—and, it seems, at the world in general—that he becomes convinced her life has been ruined by his absence. It’s one more reason to devalue his own existence.

Yet another reason comes to light thanks to an unexpected visit from Thomas (Ty Simpkins), a missionary for a religious cult that believes the “end times” are imminent. Charlie knows all about the cult, as it was implicated in a tragedy for which he blames himself and that sent his life into its downward spiral.

Sadie Sink as Charlie’s angry daughter, Ellie (Photo courtesy of Niko Tavernise)

It’s hard to imagine a more self-destructive character than Charlie, which is one reason the film has garnered nearly as many critical detractors as admirers. On the other hand, Fraser has won praise for finding the humanity in the gentle and perversely optimistic Charlie and will likely be considered for an Oscar. Also worthy of notice are the supporting performances of Chau and Sink as Charlie’s friend and daughter, respectively.

Besides the fine acting, The Whale distinguishes itself by finding a slender reason for optimism amid all the gloom. The result is that those who stay until the end will likely be moved more than they ever expected to be.

Rating: 3½ stars (out of 5)

The Whale (rated R) opens Dec. 21 in theaters nationwide.

Author: Richard Ades

Richard Ades was the arts editor of The Other Paper, a weekly news-and-entertainment publication, from 2008 until it was shut down on Jan. 31, 2013. He also served as TOP's theater critic throughout its 22-year existence.

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