The Whale

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Lionsgate;
Drama;
$17.44 million;
$19.98 DVD, $21.99 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘R’ for language, some drug use and sexual content.
Stars Brendan Fraser, Sadie Sink, Ty Simpkins, Hong Chau, Samantha Morton.

It’s not out of the realm of possibility to make a film of this subject matter that isn’t exploitive. It was laughs at first sight for the two teenage boys seated a few rows back at an opening week presentation of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, in which Darlene Cates played a housebound, morbidly obese mother of three without prosthetics. The drama was mindfully spun by director Lasse Hallström, who asked nothing more of the inexperienced actress than to fearlessly embody the character. When Mrs. Grape was forced to leave the house, she did so to the ugly snickers of neighbor kids. The duo behind me that once found great delight in Mrs. Grape’s floorboard-taxing steps had been swayed to the point of mumbling “A**holes!” back at their on-screen counterparts.

Nothing in The Whale comes close to eliciting that type of audience response. It’s too calculating for that. At its core, The Whale is the stuff TV movies are made of, an ‘R’-rated afterschool special that could just as easily have flown under the title My Fat, Gay Dad.

Director Darren Aronofsky adapted Samuel D. Hunter’s play in a manner more befitting National Theatre Live than cinema. Filming in mid-pandemic necessitated a single location shoot, but damn if I wasn’t jealous anytime a character was allowed to exit Charlie’s (Brendan Fraser) apartment. The only way Charlie would ever leave the house was if the fire department sawed a hole and used a hook-and-ladder to extract him. He teaches college English classes via Skype — imagine “The Brady Bunch” credits with the middle square blacked out and sans title — telling the class the camera on his laptop is broken, thus sparing them what Charlie envisioned to be shock and revulsion over the monster on the other end of the laptop. Charlie’s living a lie while encouraging his students to write something honest.

Unlike Gilbert Grape, The Whale repeatedly places us at the mercy of its shock-inducing structural suspension system. Think Big Momma’s House with less laughs and more shameless goading. (Maybe Martin Lawrence is a genius.) Follow the spoor of the Whale! See the Whale stripped bare! Watch the Whale shower! Behold the Whale devouring two pizzas whole! When first they meet, Thomas (Ty Simpkins), a young missionary for the New Life Church, knocks on Charlie’s door only to enter and find a Falstaffian nude attempting to pleasure himself to gay porn. Given the situation, why did shut-in Charlie acknowledge the knock in the first place? Furthermore, why didn’t Thomas make a hasty retreat after sizing up the situation?

None of the characters that pay Charlie a visit are particularly likable, which is fine. There’s not a sympathetic character in North by Northwest, but that doesn’t stop me from loving the picture. Not only did I find it hard to like Charlie, I found it even harder to like disliking Charlie. That’s nothing compared to the animus stirred up by the abundance of plot contrivances required to spur the story. The pizza delivery boy instructed to leave the pie and take the cash in the mailbox eventually stuck around just long enough to catch an eyeful. Before the curtain comes down, the black square in the Skype grid would eventually house Charlie’s likeness. The eighth grade essay on Moby Dick that haunts Charlie’s every waking move was written by estranged daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink). (They hadn’t seen each other for eight years.) She and Thomas are close in age and the inevitable collision of juvenile romance and “love me daddy” melodrama does nothing to tip the scale in Aronofsky’s favor. Everything you think would happen does so in an unrelentingly unimaginative manner. Maybe not everything. Only a writer painted in a corner could have foreseen that Charlie’s nurse (Hong Chau, lending strong support) was the adopted daughter of the New Life pastor believed to have driven his boyfriend to suicide and the man from whom Thomas is on the lam!

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What we have here is a whale of a pity party designed to make viewers feel better about their own wretched lives. When Charlie moves, it’s the blubber suit doing most of the heavy lifting. Once seated, Fraser had but two things upon which he could rely: prosthetically-enhanced eyes and a vocal motherlode of emotion worthy of radio’s Mercury Theatre. But the cynic in me says his performance was not the main reason behind his Oscar win — it was a matter of vindication for Fraser, who in 2003 alleged the former president of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, the group behind the cock-a-hoop Golden Globe awards (aka the Academy’s drunk bastard cousin), sexually assaulted the actor. Fraser was blackballed and nobody loves a comeback more than the Academy. To paraphrase Galaxy Pictures studio head Kenneth Reagan, “This smear that’s being aimed at (Fraser), it’s throwing mud on the Academy Awards as well. The Oscars mean a great deal to me, they’re a symbol, we don’t like to see them tarnished.” So in sympathy, the Academy voted Fraser in. But as sympathetic monster movies go, this has nothing on Bride of Frankenstein.

The film is presented in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio, Bonus features include a making-of featurette and a visual essay on Rob Simonsen’s score.

Downsizing

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Paramount;
Sci-Fi Comedy;
Box Office $24.45 million;
$29.99 DVD, $39.99 Blu-ray, $34.99 UHD BD;
Rated ‘R’ for language including sexual references, some graphic nudity and drug use.
Stars Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau, Udo Kier, Rolf Lassgård, Jason Sudeikis.

Director Alexander Payne’s Downsizing is a premise in search of a story, and the one they ultimately came up with could leave viewers wondering, as the film’s main character does, what the point of it all was.

Downsizing is essentially a two-hour thought experiment about what the world would be like if people could shrink themselves to be five inches tall.

The procedure is discovered by Scandinavian scientists looking to reduce the impacts of overpopulation on the environment — since smaller humans use fewer resources. Years later, the process is touted in America as a way to retire in luxury, since the equivalent needs of smaller people would cost so much less, and people could live in mansions that are essentially just large dollhouses.

Contemplating the transition are Paul and Audrey Safranek (Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig), who find themselves stifled by their modest but stable middle class lifestyle. After learning that as small people they’d be the equivalent of millionaires, they sign up to move to a downsized community. But at the last moment Audrey panics at the prospect of leaving her old life behind (and after seeing what it takes to shrink, I can’t say I blame her). But her decision comes too late for Paul, who gets reduced and finds his new life plan derailed without his wife.

A year later and he’s divorced, forced to scale back even in downsize-land, and again living a mediocre life, until he runs across a refugee from Vietnam (Hong Chau), who begins to open his eyes to a more meaningful world around him.

So, what we end up with is a message that people are still people no matter what size they are.

The film’s presentation of the shrinking process is the kind of plot element that falls apart after thinking about it for any length of time, since there’s no attempt to address things like how a scaled-down body would react to the normal gravity it originally evolved in, or where all a person’s extra mass ends up. The film also doesn’t address which parts of the body know how to shrink aside from the vague description of “cellular reduction” (as if every chemical in the body were a cell), but at least it remembers that things like dental fillings, prosthetic implants and anything artificial would have to be removed first.

Of course, aside from the incentives for shrinking, the film also doesn’t really make it seem pleasant, since it would subject you to new dangers you wouldn’t have thought twice about before, such as insects, birds, cats and dogs. It’s even mentioned that sunlight is more dangerous to small people, and the tiny communities are covered in nets or domes to try to keep these realities at bay.

So, best not to think too hard about it. The main reason for the sci-fi element is to allow for some social commentary (as sci-fi tends to do). Many of the character elements are played for satire, but the film has trouble finding a consistent tone amid all the plot points Payne is trying to explore.

The first third of the film deals with the shrinking process, how it evolved, and how and why people would undergo it. While for most people it’s a choice, there’s also some subversive suggestions that corrupt governments are forcing it upon people, or terrorists are using it to circumvent security plans. The film shows what it would be like for people about to downsize, and questions arise about the political and economic impacts downsizing has on society.

Then we get Paul coming to terms with his decision to get small and adjusting to his life and dealing with the regrets than ensue.

This is all more or less straightforward before the film turns toward an environmental disaster subplot and how small people can survive it if they can’t prevent it.

Unlike Ant-Man, the film isn’t overtly trying to have fun with the idea of shrinking. It takes it seriously, as if it’s just another way of life for the characters. That’s why the film’s structure seems so odd, since it’s devoting so much time to establishing how downsizing came to be and became a relatively common thing before focusing on a story that pushes it all to the background. A lot of scenes are presented as pretty standard character beats, when the camera catches a glimpse of an oversized prop from time to time to remind everyone about the premise (of course, such a mundane approach is likely the point).

All the while the film teases us with suggestions of things we might rather have seen, such as the bodies actually shrinking. Or what happens when a filling isn’t fully removed from a tooth beforehand.

As a result, the film is more interesting for individual scenes that present its concepts, rather than its muddled attempts to unify it as a whole. As with most movies that deal with shrinking tech, the best scenes involve seeing the small people interacting with normal-sized things (even though, many of the everyday items in the small community are just scaled-down versions of things — which only raises more questions).

There are a lot of clever touches in the shifting perspectives (such as a dollar bill used as giant wall art), and the design of the small communities are a treat to behold. People always seem to be fascinated by the idea of seeing the real world reduced into a scale miniature, and the colonies in the film also seem set up as tourist destinations for regular-sized people who just want to gawk at a world in miniature (there’s a reason why Storybookland is such a popular ride at Disneyland).

The Blu-ray offers an hour’s worth of featurettes about the making of the film, many of which expose little details about the set designs and the presentation of the miniature world. There are also a couple of additional featurettes with the iTunes version (available with the UltraViolet code included with the disc).