THE Oscars will be held on March 4 and nominated as best actor is Brendan Fraser for “The Whale”. His performance as an overweight man who has withdrawn from the world really impressed us and we’re glad that the Screen Actors Guild favored him. In the Oscars, he’d be up against Colin Farrell for “Banshees of Inisherin” or Austin Butler for “Elvis.”
“The Whale” is a drama based on a 2012 play by Samuel Hunter, who also wrote the film’s script. It is set only on one location, inside the apartment of Charlie, an online English writing teacher who is incredibly and morbidly obese. He needs a walking frame to move around, later replaced by a wheelchair.
In his bathroom scene, he is shown to be a mountain of unsightly blubber. Brendan Fraser had to put on a fat suit and prosthetic make up for the role.
Ashamed of how he looks, Charlie doesn’t turn on his laptop’s camera when teaching his students. He only orders pizza online for his food. The only one who looks after him is Liz (Hong Chau), a nurse who is very patient with him as she turns out to be the sister of his dead boyfriend.
Hong Chau is the Vietnamese actress best known for “Downsizing” with Matt Damon and the TV series “Watchmen” and “Homecoming”. She is currently nominated in the academy awards, edging out our own Dolly de Leon as one of the two Asian actresses who made it as best supporting actress nominees.
The other Asian nominee is Stephanie Hsu in “Everything Everywhere All at Once”. Like Hong Chau, she is not a newcomer as she has performed in Broadway plays and also did a regular role in the hit TV sitcom “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”. In other words, both Chau and Hsu have already paid their dues in American showbiz, compared to Dolly de Leon who’s a total newcomer.
Going back to Charlie, he has a heart ailment, but he refuses to see a doctor because of the expense and he wants to leave all his lifetime savings to his only daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink, a former child actress best known for “Stranger Things” and the “Fear Street” horror trilogy.)
He is estranged from Ellie who hates her because he left her and her mom for his boyfriend when she was 8 years old. He wants to reconcile with her before his time runs out, so he contacts her and she comes, so full of bitterness and anger against him.
An itinerant missionary of the New Life Church also knocks on Charlie’s door, Thomas (Ty Simpkins of the “Insidious” series), and offers to teach him about faith and the end times. Ellie bullies him but somehow, a connection is formed between them.
The film is from Director Darren Aronofsky, who made such acclaimed films as “Black Swan”, “Requiem for a Dream”, “The Wrestler” and “Mother!”. “The Whale” is one of his more accessible films, without the surreal elements of “Black Swan” or “Mother!”
But it became controversial when some writers accused it of being dehumanizing for mocking fat people. Honestly, though, we find the character of Charlie very empathetic. He has his reasons for his binge eating disorder and getting so fat, and they’re quite heartbreaking.
We only have compassion for his plight. It’s revealed that he feels guilty about the death of his lover who killed himself after being ostracized by his own dad who’s a pastor in New Life. But we feel not only for him but all the other well-written characters, as we all get to know them better while suffering from different levels of heartbreak.
Ellie is understandably angry with the world after her dad abandoned her. Liz is the adopted daughter of the New Life pastor with whom she cannot relate. While smoking pot with Ellie, Thomas confesses that he stole church money and ran away from his parents. Liz brings in Charlie’s estranged wife, Mary (Samantha Morton), and they argue about their marriage and their failure as parents to Ellie.
The title can refer to Charlie’s appearance but Herman Melville’s novel about a whale, “Moby Dick”, is also mentioned. Ellie wrote an essay about it and the characters Ishmael and Queequeg, that have homosexual allusions. Charlie asks her to read it and it’s their last transaction before Charlie levitates and the film fades out for its ending that suggests salvation.
Brendan Fraser was at the peak of his career playing hunky characters as “George of the Jungle” and the action hero in “The Mummy” franchise. His career slowed down and he branched out into television doing a number of series.
And now, he gets to do another lead role playing a broken man in what is definitely a career’s best performance, filled with pain and melancholy. He is outstanding in many scenes but the best for us is his final scene with his students where he coaxes them to write, for once, something honest.
In return, he becomes honest himself, switches on his video camera for his students to see how he looks for the first time. His students are understandably shocked so he threw his laptop against the wall, wrecking it.
The film has a superb ensemble cast. Everyone shines in their own memorable moment. Hong Chau is splendid in so many scenes where she shows she’s both strong and vulnerable, so we’re not surprised that she got a best supporting actress nomination. Sadie Sink may seem cruel but she just perfectly captures the hatred and rage resulting from paternal abandonment.