Darren Aronofsky’s vapid, hammy and stagey movie, adapted by Samuel D Hunter from his own 2012 play, is the festival’s biggest and most surprising disappointment: the writing clunks; the narrative is contrived and unconvincing and the whole film has a strange pass-agg body language, as if it is handling its own painful subject matter with kid gloves and asking us to do the same.
Brendan Fraser is Charlie, an English teacher in charge of an online study course, run via Zoom. He claims to the group that his laptop camera isn’t working, which is why the square on the screen where his face should be is blank. But actually he doesn’t want them to see what he looks like: Charlie is morbidly obese, a giant pool of flesh, hardly able to leave the couch with a walking frame to get to the lavatory, gorging delivery pizzas and fried chicken, with a stash of chocolate bars in the desk drawer. Our first view of Charlie is of him masturbating to gay porn, culminating in a heart attack that almost kills him.
But this isn’t supposed to be ironic black comedy and Charlie isn’t supposed to be greedy or lazy or selfish (although these uncaring talking points are not really aired). He is depressed after the death of his partner, a former student from an adult night-school class for whom he left his wife and young daughter; it was a desertion for which he is still guilt-stricken.
Charlie’s only friend now is his late partner’s sister Liz (Hong Chau), a tough-minded nurse exasperated at his refusal to go to hospital. His fragile, lonely life becomes more complicated still with the arrival at his door of a strange young man, Thomas (Ty Simpkins), a Christian evangelist from the church of which Charlie’s partner was a member. His angry, conflicted daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink), also appears to want to reconnect.
Alongside it all, there is Charlie’s love of literature, especially Melville’s Moby-Dick, and Charlie is glumly aware that he is the whale, the huge bloated entity that no one wants to hunt down or obsess over or even think about at all. Or perhaps it is that Charlie is hunting the elusive meaning of his own wrecked life, deep in the ocean of loneliness.
Fraser brings a definite gentleness and openness to the role of Charlie, and his performance is good, although of course it is upstaged by the showy latex and the special effects, which are there to elicit a mix of horror and sympathy and awards-season love, like a very serious male version of the “Fat Monica” prom video scene in Friends.
There is a too-good-to-be-true sheen to Charlie’s sweet saintliness; his emotional yearning and wounded niceness are underlined by the coercive orchestral score, and this movie’s concept of death is sentimental and even sneakily religiose. But even this isn’t exactly the problem – it is the convoluted plot that surrounds Charlie: the weird and implausible shenanigans around Thomas’s background and Ellie’s unhappiness and bad attitude, all indirectly and clumsily revealed. Charlie believes in Ellie’s essential goodness to the very end, but any supposed ambiguity about her intentions and behaviour is unsatisfying and uninteresting. Fraser does an honest job in the role of Charlie, and Hong Chau brings a welcome fierceness and sinew to the drama, but this sucrose film is very underpowered.
• The Whale screened at the Venice film festival and is released on 3 February in UK cinemas.