The Whale Review: Brendan Fraser Can’t Save Darren Aronofsky’s Failure of Empathy

This review is part of our coverage of the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.

The Pitch: To his online students, Charlie (Brendan Fraser) is a barely tolerable expository writing instructor with a little too much emotional investment in the power of truthful writing and a perpetually broken webcam. Behind the black square in the middle of their Zoom meetings, Charlie is a 600-pound recluse whose only visitors are his best friend Liz (Hong Chau), his regular pizza delivery person, and a door-to-door evangelist who becomes oddly fixated on saving him (Ty Simpkins).

When Charlie’s health begins to rapidly deteriorate, because he is fat, Liz, who is a nurse, begs him to go to the hospital. But he has no interest in treatment. Instead, he reaches out to his estranged daughter (Sadie Sink) to make one last desperate attempt to connect with her in the time he has left on this earth in his fat body. Also, Charlie is very fat.

The Good News: Darren Aronofsky‘s cinematic adaptation of Samuel D. Hunter’s play of the same name, for which Hunter wrote the screenplay, is at least a little better than the oddly quippy repertory productions you can find on YouTube. It’s staged and shot in a way that makes solid use of its single set, and everyone in the small cast brings their A game, especially Hong Chau, who at this point appears to be incapable of turning in anything less than a stellar performance.

As for Brendan Fraser, his big comeback performance often comes close to living up to the substantial and snowballing hype it’s received so far. In fact, he’s so good — so utterly human — in the role that it might obfuscate the extent of the problems with this film for many viewers. Any feelings that you are able to connect to Charlie, beyond disgust or pity, are 100 percent due to Fraser’s efforts. Those substantial efforts aren’t enough to overcome the rot at the heart of this film, though.

The Elephant in the Room: We have to talk about the fat suit. It’s not a simple bit of extra set dressing or a minor misstep. Given the way the suit is shot — with so many lingering closeups on Charlie’s ankles, neck, and belly — it’s arguably the actual star of the film. There’s really no aspect of The Whale that isn’t influenced by its presence.

The story suffers because it’s written and adapted for the screen by a thin man who decided to make his main character fat because he presumed that the majority of audience members would feel an instant distance from him and the writer could, over the course of the play, challenge them to empathize with his creation. (This isn’t conjecture. Hunter has said this himself.)

The Whale (A24)