Martyrdom is overrated. In the hands of director Darren Aronofsky, it’s also sadistic and manipulative. Whether it’s Natalie Portman’s tortured ballerina in “Black Swan,” Jennifer Connelly’s abused addict in “Requiem for a Dream,” or Mickey Rourke’s broken-down wrestler in “The Wrestler” (my number-one movie of 2008), the filmmaker makes his characters suffer to the point of parody. In “The Whale,” Brendan Fraser’s gay, 600-pound English teacher, Charlie, is no exception.
Through this suffering, viewers are supposed to feel a powerful sense of empathy. But it’s hard to feel empathy when the movie gawks at Charlie with clear disgust, then tries to gaslight us into believing that’s not its intention. It’s a carnival barker bellowing, “Come witness the man who ate himself to death!”
Set in Charlie’s house, “The Whale” is a story about a man who is in such emotional pain that he has self-medicated with food for years. His health has now declined to the point of near-death. He literally has a week to live, a fact the film reminds us of with handy-dandy onscreen titles marking the days. It’s a foregone conclusion that Charlie is going to die — there would be no movie if he didn’t — so “The Whale” plans on tormenting him, and us, until he expires.
The screenplay by playwright Samuel D. Hunter (who adapted his own semi-autobiographical play) is too concerned with plot tangents that go nowhere to create believable characters. Instead, the actors are all playing symbols in service to an overwritten script that somehow manages to cram a religious cult, a hostile divorce, homophobia, Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick,” and suicide into an unwatchable two-hour fiasco.
Fraser wears prosthetics, including a “fat suit,” to play Charlie, a point of controversy for some critics who’ve argued that an obese actor should have been cast, but movie magic is the least of the film’s problems; it’s what happens once Fraser is onscreen that deserves condemnation.
Cinematographer Matthew Libatique can’t help but frame Charlie in the worst possible compositions. The camera leers as he takes a shower in a full-frontal shot, ogles him as he walks with his walker, and lingers on every puddle of sweat on his clothing. When Charlie eats, we see the grease pouring down his face while exaggerated, animalistic slurping noises are accompanied by horror-movie music by composer Rob Simonsen.
The disdain starts from the opening scene. We’re introduced to Charlie as his masturbation session is interrupted by both a potential heart attack and a visit from Thomas (Ty Simpkins), some kind of missionary who has come to save Charlie’s soul. Watch how this scene is edited, how your eye is forcibly drawn to the gay porn on Charlie’s laptop screen.
“The Whale” makes Charlie’s homosexuality a shameful thing, much like his eating. His guilt stems from the old, reliable dead-gay-lover subplot. Practically every other sentence out of his mouth is “I’m sorry.” He’s sorry he left his young daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink), and her mother, (Samantha Morton), to run off with his male student. He’s sorry he can’t stop eating. He’s sorry in general.
The only thing that seems to calm him and quell his numerous cardiac episodes is a really lousy essay on “Moby Dick.” As a heart attack survivor, I can tell you Melville is no substitute for the ER. I’d prefer not to tell you how easy it is to guess that essay’s author.
When the teenage Ellie visits Charlie at his request, one can understand she’s angry at her father, but Hunter makes her irredeemable until a last-minute grasp for sympathy. She threatens Thomas with allegations of rape, calls her father gay slurs, and humiliates him at every turn. Even her mother tells Charlie their daughter is evil.
What saves “The Whale” from completely floundering is Hong Chau’s performance. Her character, Liz is Charlie’s friend, nurse, and the sister of his deceased lover. Despite Chau’s fierce and tender performance, she can’t make sense out of Liz’s actions: One minute, she’s telling Charlie he’s suffering from heart failure and needs immediate care or he will die; the next, she’s bringing him giant meatball subs to devour.
“The Whale” is being hailed as the comeback vehicle for Fraser. The actor has been through a lot, and he deserves roles that showcase his numerous talents. But he fails to bring humanity to this character who lives in a state of constant apology. The role feels like a cynical grab for an Oscar, which he’ll probably win as the Academy loves masochistic malarkey.
A good director will use editing and music to guide the audience through a film’s themes and to its desired emotional effect. Aronofsky has proven he can direct, so what to make of the fact that this film is so hateful and vile? “The Whale” is too obvious in its disgust for Charlie for me to read it any other way.
Directed by Darren Aronofsky. Screenplay by Samuel D. Hunter, based on his play. Starring Brendan Fraser, Hong Chau, Sadie Sink, Ty Simpkins, and Samantha Morton. At Fenway, AMC Boston Common, Coolidge Corner, Kendall Square, and suburbs. 117 minutes. R (nudity, hateful language, rampant emotional sadism)
Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic.