A few years ago, I had the pleasure to see a staged reading of Samuel D. Hunter’s “The Whale”, back when it was just a stage play that hadn’t been produced locally. And so far as I know, the play still hasn’t been staged here in Portland. But now we have The Whale, adapted by Hunter himself with Darren Aronofsky directing and a resurgent Brendan Fraser in the lead role.
On paper, this should’ve been a slam-dunk. And indeed, this was a hotly anticipated movie among cinephiles and awards-watchers. Then the film came out, and the reception was surprisingly lukewarm: Only a 65 percent Tomatometer as of this writing. Not bad, to be sure, but far from the critical darling everyone expected.
How could a movie fall so far below expectations? Well, based on my memory of the source material, I’ve got a pretty good idea why.
This is the story of Charlie, played by Brendan Fraser. Long story short, Charlie is an English professor who left his wife and young daughter to claim his homosexuality and engage in an illicit liaison with one of his students. When said lover died a while back, Charlie fell into such a deep depression that he started eating everything in sight.
As our film opens, Charlie is still teaching college English remotely, with his webcam permanently disabled. He’s at least three feet wide, weighing hundreds of pounds, his blood pressure is almost literally off the charts, he can’t breathe without wheezing, he gets winded just by lifting his arms, and there are multiple times when he nearly goes into cardiac arrest simply by laughing too hard.
Yet Charlie still eats junk food for every meal. At this rate, I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that Charlie dies at the end of this movie. Or at least, he’s supposed to. We’ll come back to that.
Anyway, Charlie owes his continued existence to Liz (Hong Chau), a friend of his who also works as a nurse. I won’t spoil any details with regard to the exact nature of their friendship or why Liz keeps going so far out of her way to keep Charlie alive. Suffice to say that no matter how much Charlie is clearly suffering, no matter how much time and effort Liz keeps putting into the Herculean task of caring for Charlie, no matter how much it pains Charlie and Liz and freaking EVERYONE to see him like this, Charlie isn’t doing a thing to save himself or make any of this easier.
Charlie’s initial excuse is that he’s too far gone for any hospital to help him, even if he had insurance and he could afford whatever the hell it would take to buy him a few more years. But as the plot unfolds, it becomes clear that there’s something else going on here. On some level, yes, he’s heartbroken for the loss of his life partner and there’s certainly some major part of him that doesn’t want to go on living after that passing. But even more than that, it seems like Charlie is suffering because he thinks he deserves it. After all, the one and only thing he seems to care about is making amends with his estranged daughter.
Enter Ellie (Sadie Sink), now a delinquent high school senior who just got suspended from school. And now she’s run away from home to see her father to solicit his help in writing an essay that will keep her from flunking out of school.
All due credit to Sink, she does a marvelous job of finding the humanity in this character. From the first frame, Sink makes it perfectly clear that Ellie is the product of a traumatic childhood, justifiably hating the father who walked out on her and the alcoholic single mother who raised her. I might add that Charlie offers tacit agreement with all the awful things that Ellie says about him, and her mother (played here by Samantha Morton) is indeed shown to be a spiteful old alcoholic bitch who’s completely given up on her daughter.
I can see how this might come off as a logical approach. And to their credit, all three of the actors involved do a marvelous job of playing their characters in this way. The problem is, it’s the wrong approach.
I know it sounds counterintuitive, but the story needs Ellie to be a stone-cold teenage terror. It’s nice and all that Sink’s portrayal needed a few more hugs, but this plot can only work if Ellie is such a thoroughly unlikable psychopath that no rational person could stand her long enough to try and defend her in court. For one thing, it would make for a much more satisfying development arc if she covered so much more distance before she came to genuinely — however briefly — care about her father at the end of the movie.
By far the most important through-line in this entire movie is in Charlie’s attempts at reaching out to Ellie. Charlie sees the good in his daughter, even and especially when nobody else does. The more hateful Ellie is at the outset, the harder that hits.
For another thing, the film makes it plainly obvious that there’s a tonal disconnect between how the character is being played and how the character was meant to be played. For instance, there’s a point when Ellie’s mother talks about a time when Ellie slashed her teacher’s tires. I could totally believe Ellie of the source material going that far. Ellie of the film resorting to that kind of vandalism? Sorry, but that sounds like a bit of a stretch to me.
But then we have what may be the single most important factor in why this approach doesn’t work: The essay. From literally the very first scene to the closing lines of dialogue, a major recurring plot point concerns an essay on “Moby Dick”. It’s a nice recurring plot thread in the film, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough.
The original script (or the staged reading that I saw of it, at least) differs from the film in that it made a clear point in a crucial analogy. As with Ahab, Ellie is aggressively undercut by her own mindless and obsessive hatred toward Charlie’s Moby Dick. Thus Ellie has to forgive her grudge or she’ll destroy herself and everyone around her and anything that might’ve ever been special about her.
On a similar note, we’ve got Thomas (Ty Simpkins) a young missionary who stumbles upon Charlie while proselytizing door-to-door. Thomas then proceeds to stick around and provide whatever help he can because he’s convinced that God sent him on a mission to save and convert Charlie. I should mention that Liz has a previous history with Thomas’ church, thus he provides Liz a convenient device to unload her own childhood trauma (in keeping with the running theme on that topic). Also, Charlie is an uptight young man to provide dramatic conflict and humorous contrast with the delinquent Ellie.
But the Thomas storyline falls apart where Charlie is concerned. Because unlike the source material, the film never goes anywhere near the story of Jonah. The outcast missionary who had lost his way, unsure of his ability to preach the Lord’s word in a way that would make any difference, until he got shipwrecked and eventually saved by… wait for it… wait for it… a whale.
One of my favorite aspects of the original play was in all of these allusions to whale imagery throughout classical literature. The whale imagery is what gives all these storylines their deeper meaning. It’s the justification for the title, the whole point of having a morbidly obese main character, the glue holding this whole damn story together. The film adaptation inexplicably cut virtually all of that, and the story crumbles as a direct result. Sure, we get a few heartfelt statements about honesty and redemption and mortality, but there’s nothing to tie it all together into a single cohesive whole.
The other big problem is in the ending. As I recall the staged reading, the source material ends with a sound effect, such that we can hear Charlie’s heartbeat getting faster and more erratic, right up until we cut to black and we hear him flatline. The play ends precisely on his death, and in such a way that there is no ambiguity whatsoever. But alas, that approach wouldn’t work quite so well in cinema as it would on a live stage, so another approach was needed. And because this is Darren Aronofsky, he had to go with a dreamlike approach that leaves a bit of wiggle room for interpretation. It’s not the same. And the ambiguity takes away from the gut-punch in a big way.
The Whale is a failed experiment, but it was certainly worth a try. Brendan Fraser and Hong Chau lead a phenomenal cast, and I appreciate how Charlie and his condition were treated with so much empathy and pathos. Trouble is, this story was very clearly written for the stage, and the film isn’t enough to convince me that it would work so well in any other medium. We need that cut-to-black flatline at the end, we need those allusions to classical whale imagery, and we need a director who isn’t afraid to let Ellie be a hate sink through the first half of the movie.
The individual parts are all beautiful, but they never coalesce into something greater. I love all these actors, I love all these filmmakers, and I wish them all well moving forward, but this one is only worth sitting through for the awards watchers.