Brendan Fraser saves The Whale

During his Tokyo press conference on April 6 at the Ritz-Carlton to promote his Oscar-winning performance in Darren Aronofsky’s film, The Whale, Brendan Fraser, making his first trip to Japan in 15 years, used the words “courage” and “empathy” multiple times to describe any number of matters connected to the people who worked on the movie. “It’s about empathy and hard-won hope,” he said in an attempt to encapsulate the movie’s theme. When asked if he had maintained a friendship with former co-star (in one of the Mummy movies) Michelle Yeoh, the female counterpart to his Best Actor award this year, he said, prior to seeing her at the Oscars ceremony, he ran into Yeoh at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival and lauded her as an artist with “a lot of courage.” He used the same noun to describe Aronofsky when he decided to tackle the play from which The Whale was adapted (by the play’s author), as well as his character, Charlie.

It was this last qualification that gave me pause. The comment about Charlie’s courage came during a particularly lyrical description of the character in response to a pointed question about how the film reflected certain uncomfortable truths about American society. Charlie, after all, is morbidly obese, a condition we are led to believe was caused by trauma: Charlie’s ex-lover, a former student of his, killed himself out of shame due to his religious upbringing. Charlie is essentially eating himself to death.

“Having courage—it means acknowledging there’s an obstacle,” Fraser explained in the hushed but clear tones he maintained throughout the press conference. “Charlie is a hero, but not the kind of hero who carries a sword and shield.” What Fraser was trying to say, using awkward psychobabble, was that by recognizing and “owning” his condition, Charlie was doing something heroic, a reading of the character that may mislead people who hadn’t yet seen The Whale to expect something it isn’t. Charlie’s misery is his most salient feature, and Aronofsky has highlighted it with prosthetics that turn Fraser into a mountain of self-disgust. The actor is often called upon to perform fits of gorging—on pizza, on sandwiches, on chocolate—that are meant to horrify the audience. In order to accept Fraser’s characterization of Charlie, you really have to readjust your understanding of the word “courage.”

And yet Fraser is by far the best thing about The Whale. Aronofsky is notorious for putting his audience through the emotional ringer with characters who are often difficult to watch because of their self-destructive behavior: the junkie lovers in Requiem for a Dream, the titular sports veteran in The Wrestler, the suicidal ballerina in Black Swan. In most cases the actors he choose get career boosts just for appearing in his movies because people assume they risked their sanity to work for a sadist like Aronofsky. Fraser is the epitome of this phenomenon. After a successful career in his youth playing light comedy but also some fairly serious stuff (one reporter mentioned Gods and Monsters, a great movie from the 2000s that everyone has forgotten), Fraser vanished for reasons that didn’t necessarily have to do with his abilities or attitude, and Aronofsky gave him the chance to make a comeback in a very big way. When one reporter asked if it was difficult to work with Aronofsky, he said, “I was honored to work with him. He’s fearless, so I think every actor would want to work with him. There is some creative intimidation, and he has particular standards that mean you have to draw on everything you have. I had to take risks to be vulnerable, and you’re not often asked to do that.”

In some ways the vulnerability that he “drew on” simply rendered Charlie a calm port of call in a stormy sea, a metaphor that fits the story since “the whale” of the title is not, as some people probably think, a pejorative dig at Charlie’s corpulence, but rather refers to the book Moby-Dick, whose titular cetacean becomes a leitmotif, since Charlie is an English teacher and it seems to be his favorite book. Within that metaphor the stormy sea is other people, and what makes The Whale a chore to sit through is the characters Charlie interacts with, all of whom have their own serious problems, though in the frame of the movie—which is designed to be claustrophobic—they take out their frustrations on Charlie, who hates himself enough as it is. Whatever Fraser tried to put over with all his talk about “courage” and “empathy” and “hope,” the film rarely provides anything so edifying. Yes, Charlie achieves a kind of grace at the end, but along the way the overarching exegetic emotion is pity, which, I suppose, is better than disgust, but only because it’s difficult to stay disgusted at a sympathetic protagonist for two hours, even as he wallows is self-degradation. But when Fraser, who has the most expressive set of eyes in Hollywood, taps into that vulnerability, The Whale does achieve a certain level of sublime truth, and as the viewer realizes this it becomes all the more frustrating because the other characters, which include the sister of Charlie’s dead lover, his Biblically pissed-off and estranged teenage daughter, his alcoholic ex-wife, and a former stoner missionary who tries to save Charlie’s soul, never recognize his humanity until it’s too late. And while that sort of dynamic can be dramatically fruitful, it can also be a cheat. 

It was obvious right from the start of the press conference that Fraser, dressed simply in a tan jacket and grey slacks, is at base a vulnerable person. His cordiality was hot-wired to his demeanor. He made sure to remember each of his interlocutors’ names and thanked them for the depth of their perceptions about the film. He had the highest praise for his co-stars, who he stressed also had to approach their tasks with courage and empathy. And he was thorough about all those who helped him—including an organization that advocates for and supports obese people—understand his character and, in the process, become a bona fide star again. He is genuinely humbled by his return to a level of success that should see him through the rest of his career. But he gave the game away while trying to describe his approach to acting. “I wanted to do Charlie justice,” he said. “I don’t make choices that italicize a person or a performance.” In other words, not so much empathy as identification. There but for the grace of God goes Brendan Fraser.

Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Chanter Hibiya (050-6868-5001), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Cinemart Shinjuku (03-5369-2831), Shibuya Parco White Cine Quinto (03-6712-7225), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).

The Whale home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2022 Palouse Rights LLC

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