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Movie review: 'The Whale' wavers but ultimately pays off

1/5
Brendan Fraser stars in "The Whale." Photo courtesy of A24
Brendan Fraser stars in "The Whale." Photo courtesy of A24

LOS ANGELES, Dec. 6 (UPI) -- The Whale, in theaters Friday, is a constant battle between Brendan Fraser's sincere performance and a complete caricature of a prosthetic contraption. Fraser ultimately wins but the prosthetic contraption puts up a good fight for two hours.

Charlie (Fraser) is an online writing professor who keeps his camera off so students don't see what he looks like. Charlie's weight keeps him mostly confined to a chair, but he uses a walker to get to the bathroom.

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Liz (Hong Chau) is a nurse who visits Charlie to bring him food and monitor his vitals. Suddenly, two new figures enter Charlie's life.

Thomas (Ty Simpkins) is a missionary from the New Life church who knocks on Charlie's door. Charlie also offers to help his estranged daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink), with her schoolwork. Charlie even offers to pay Ellie $120,000 he's saved up just to stick around.

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Fraser clearly has compassion for Charlie and plays him as a man who understands he self-destructed through coping mechanisms. Charlie doesn't want to go to the hospital and incur medical debt, but he doesn't seem like he wants to die either.

The suit is distracting to Fraser's performance. The prosthetic could have been slightly smaller and still conveyed Charlie's difficulties and emotional state. The actual design looks like a computer-generated creature only it was a physical outfit Fraser wore.

Even though it was a physical prosthetic, the suit has the same problem many computer animated effects have. It was rendered with such realistic detail that it achieves the sort of uncanny valley where it technically looks real but you can tell something is off.

The camera angles also exaggerate Charlie so that he's not only overweight, but towers over the other characters. If director Darren Aronofsky's goal was to portray him literally as the monster he feels like, Fraser sabotaged that plan by making Charlie real.

The battle between Fraser's performance and the filmmakers' portrayal of him also embodies the thematic battles at play in the story. The story comes from Samuel D. Hunter adapting his own play.

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Ellie is an understandably cynical teenager. Any high school senior is rebellious, but she hasn't seen Charlie since she was 8, when Charlie left to pursue a relationship with another man.

That's complicated because it means Charlie was closeted while he had a wife and daughter. So he should be able to come out, but he also shouldn't abandon his daughter, but his wife didn't want him around her.

Charlie's lover was a student, so a teacher/student romance also blurs the lines of consent and authority. Later, Charlie reveals that the student was in night school, implying he was an adult, but that doesn't change the power dynamic.

That student was the love of Charlie's life though. After his death, Charlie turned to food to cope.

Ellie wanted a father but Charlie felt unworthy. Charlie also asks Ellie, and the audience, to see her potential for good.

Charlie encourages Ellie's cynical takes on her assignments and the world because it's better than apathy. Ellie's most destructive actions ultimately improve other characters' situations.

Either Ellie is masking her altruistic intentions, as Charlie believes, or she inadvertently helped people. In the end, the film's perspective is that it doesn't matter as long as the result is positive.

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That take may be challenging to some viewers given the gusto with which Sink embraces Ellie's hostility.

The Whale can be utterly cynical, showing that it's futile to try to save anybody. And it can be utterly sappy with some teary exclamations that feel written exclusively to be included in the Oscar clips.

In most of the movie, it is raining outside Charlie's house so the one scene in which the sun comes out feels too pat. A scene of Charlie gorging is practically a serious version of the classic Monty Python Mr. Creosote sketch.

This thematic confusion may be too frustrating or it may make people coping with conflicting feelings feel heard. The Whale is ambiguous enough to allow both cynics and optimists to feel validated, although the cynics would just consider that a copout.

The title comes from Charlie's favorite essay a student wrote about Moby Dick, but it obviously has a double meaning. Charlie is confined to the house with restricted mobility like a beached whale. Though the film does not explicitly call him a whale, characters including Charlie himself call him disgusting.

The Whale is about characters struggling with how they see themselves and how the world sees them. Sometimes those perspectives overlap and sometimes they clash, but the film ultimately rewards giving it the benefit of the doubt.

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Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001 and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012. Read more of his work in Entertainment.

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