Darren Aronofsky's new film "The Whale" is, at best, a mixed bag. Based on the play by Samuel D. Hunter, who also wrote the screenplay, "The Whale" tells the story of Charlie (Brendan Fraser) who teaches creative writing remotely, and who has been grappling with severe depression and self-loathing. Charlie's true love, a man named Alan, had recently taken his own life, leaving Charlie alone and emotionally devastated. Both Charlie and Alan had been targeted by a local homophobic Christian sect as objects of potential "redemption," showing that the two men lived in a dark, bigoted world. Charlie has come to hate himself so much after Alan's death that he willfully accepts the horrendous abuse doled out by his long-estranged and explicitly villainous teenage daughter (Sadie Sink). "The Whale" is a sad film about Charlie's depression and how it has manifested in his own low sense of self-worth.
Aronofsky, unfortunately, seems to think that "The Whale" is explicitly about obesity. Charlie has taken to overeating after Alan's death, and now weighs 600 pounds and faces potential congestive heart failure. Aronofsky does not present any of Charlie's physical issues as matter-of-fact facets of his everyday life but shows them as one might in a horror movie, playing scary music anytime Charlie drops something or has to merely move about his apartment. When Charlie eats, Aronofsky ups the volume on his chewing. Any critical complaints about the film's fatphobia are warranted.
Generally agreed upon, however, is the power of Fraser's performance. A naturally affable movie star, Fraser brings a twinkle and a charm to Charlie that lets viewers delve easily into his bleak emotional state. The casting of Fraser was a wise choice … and, according to an interview with Empire, took years to work out.
A Decade Of Waiting
According to the Empire article, Aronofsky saw Hunter's play off-Broadway way back in 2012. The material struck him, and the filmmaker immediately began entertaining ideas of adapting it to film. Aronofsky and Hunter began workshopping a screenplay, working out its core ideas and brainstorming who should play the role of Charlie. No actor, however, manifested. Aronofsky said he needed a performer he would personally be excited to see. "I was looking for a reason to get up in the morning," he told Empire. "Someone to work with that pumped me up." In the interim, Aronofsky would make a pair of wild-and-crazy Biblical epics with "Noah" in 2014 and "mother!" in 2017.
It wouldn't be until years later that Aronofsky would happen to see a preview for Eric Eason's low-budget crime movie "Journey to the End of Night," starring Fraser, Scott Glenn, Alice Braga, and Mos Def. Only then would the filmmaker begin to think about his eventual leading man. In "Journey to the End of Night," Fraser plays a character named Paul who is a gambling addict, a cocaine addict, and co-owner of a Brazilian brothel with his father (Glenn). The film wasn't too widely noted, but it certainly — years after its release — got Aronofsky about Fraser's talents and charm.
As Aronofsky said of Fraser:
"He was off the radar, but suddenly I saw him, and was like, 'Oh, that's an idea.' […] Movie stars are movie stars for a reason. It's not just the good luck and good looks. There's a fire inside them. Brendan was the first actor that just got me like … it was a eureka moment."
Fraser has been frank about the arc of his career. He started acting young, and rose to prominence as a handsome matinee idol. He had some pretty severe challenges as he moved into action hero roles in the late 1990s, and has gone on record saying that playing George of the Jungle in the eponymous 1997 film did a number on his body, and his mind. Fraser took a hiatus from acting in the late 2000s following divorce and an act of assault against him by Hollywood Foreign Press Association head Philip Berk, an act that Fraser has spoken about openly. Should Fraser be nominated for a Golden Globe for "The Whale," he has said he will not accept it.
Despite his struggles, Fraser remained a deeply beloved actor with scads of fans. Aronofsky once claimed that he didn't know how much affection the public held for Fraser, capturing his leading man's natural affability as a matter of luck. Aronofsky did, however, know about some of the challenges Fraser faced in his career, and wanted to ensure that he would be granted a notable acting challenge. Aronofsky said:
"He hasn't had great opportunities for a long time […] And in that time, he's grown as a human being and so he's just become a much better performer. But he hasn't had the opportunity to show it."
Luckily, Fraser was up to the task, recalling, "My instinctive reaction was, 'I want to do this.'" He knew it would be hard as well, saying "Was I daunted? Yes. […] It's a lot to wrap your arms around."
The two worked together well enough to earn Fraser multiple acting nominations, and Vegas odds are he will receive an Oscar nomination. Regardless of the film's clumsiness, Fraser deserves it.
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