‘The Whale’ follows familiar Oscars script, with one great performance but not much else of note

brendan fraser the whale

Brendan Fraser in “The Whale.”

It’s a grand old Oscar tradition: Great performances in mediocre movies.

And this year, Brendan Fraser may get a statue out of it.

“The Whale” isn’t an awful movie, but it’s not a very good one. It’s terribly stage-bound, and predictable. In fact, although it began as someone else’s play, it slavishly follows the template its director, Darren Aronofsky, first created more than a decade ago for his critically acclaimed “The Wrestler.”

Cast a previously hot, now fading star. Construct a story about a once-successful man in a slow, self-destructive spiral. Stick him in a hovel, alienated from nearly everyone. Now re-introduce the daughter he loves but hasn’t seen in years. Give him one last chance for redemption.

And end on an ambiguous shot that suggests he may have rediscovered his soul — but perhaps only with moments to spare.

Congratulations! You’re now Oscar bound!

That was the framework for “The Wrestler,” and it got Mickey Rourke as far as a Best Actor nomination — but no further, because the surly Rourke was infamous for having pushed Hollywood away with both hands. Fraser, on the other hand, is a genuinely genial guy who was badly treated by the business, through no fault of his own — and this time the nomination may turn into an Oscar.

Which is fine. He’s good in the movie.

It’s the movie itself that’s meh.

There is no shortage of candidates for the list of when-good-performances-happen-to-bad-movies. How many times have you seen a supporting actor like Christopher Walken or Juliette Lewis shine in the midst of dreck? And the “star vehicle” — a movie built solely for and around one performer — is an old Hollywood tradition. But recent Oscar races have only encouraged it.

Cate Blanchett in “Tár.”

In fact, it’s practically becoming obligatory.

It’s not true of every nominee this year. Fraser’s closest competition, Colin Farrell, is very good in “The Banshees of Inisherin,” a movie that is itself very good. Best actress contenders Cate Blanchett, the star of “Tár,” and Michelle Yeoh, the lead in “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” are both outstanding in films that are, themselves, excellent in every way.

But too often the Oscars’ performer nominations honor films that have nothing else to recommend them. And that’s because, from the start, the films had no other reason for being than to give a star a chance to deliver an impossible-to-ignore performance.

Everything, from the first word in the screenplay, is there to construct a gilded frame for the actor’s work. The problem? That effort has so monopolized the filmmaker’s attention that everything else — the narrative, the supporting characters — has been neglected. Everything is there to serve the lead performance. Nothing else matters.

And because of that … well, nothing else connects.

Will Smith in “King Richard.”

Last year, for example, the Best Actor prize went to Will Smith for “King Richard,” an extraordinary bit of hagiography that made what could have been a movie about two of tennis’ greatest female stars into a tribute to their dad. The Best Actress prize went to Jessica Chastain for tirelessly crying her way through “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” an exhaustively detailed biopic about someone I really never wanted to think about again.

Did you see those films? And if you did, can you imagine ever, willingly, sitting through them again?

Both performances were fine. Smith’s was a little too obviously “Can I have my statue NOW?,” perhaps, but Chastain’s had real passion and power. Yet the movies themselves were dreadful. And you left them with the feeling that the only reason they got made was the filmmakers knew they had written a big, pull-out-all-the-stops part, and that it would be easy to get a star to commit.

It’s a situation that seems to encourage biopics, with disappointing results that often skew more camp than classic.

“Bohemian Rhapsody” was a dodgy, disrespectful “tribute” to Queen and Freddie Mercury, a movie that was too lazy to even get the chronology of the group’s career correct, and too nervous about homosexuality to look at Freddie’s love life with anything except disapproval. Often poorly staged and edited, it didn’t even offer the distraction of a single great supporting performance.

But it won Rami Malek an Oscar.

The Churchill tribute “Darkest Hour” was as appetizing as an English meal of tepid tea and baked beans on toast — a slog through Britain’s World War II efforts that felt like a History Channel re-run. But it had Gary Oldman shaking his prosthetic jowls and, boy, he’s been around a long time being great without winning anything. And so — boom. An Oscar.

Renée Zellweger in “Judy.”

Although worshipful biopics are particularly good for men — accounting for seven of the Best Actor wins over the last 12 years — they’ve meant prizes for women, too. “Judy” was more of a mess than the divine Miss Garland ever was, but it still carried Renée Zellweger to an Oscar. “The Iron Lady” had an upper lip so stiff it could barely breathe, but clenched teeth and an impermeable hairdo garnered Meryl Streep yet another golden statue.

Again, in those movies, once you subtracted that lead performance, there was no there there. Can you recall a single bravura musical sequence from “Judy”? What, ultimately, was the special insight into Margaret Thatcher that “The Iron Lady” revealed? I don’t remember, because I wasn’t supposed to. Things like that would have gotten in the way. I was just supposed to remember Zellweger, and Streep, and all that makeup and mimicry and emoting.

And, if I were an Academy member, vote for them.

There is nothing particularly wrong with many of these performances. Nor are the Best Actor or Best Actress category supposed to honor anything but what they say they honor; if you want to salute the entire film, vote for it in the Best Picture category. (Which, significantly, “The Whale” was not nominated in.) If Fraser takes home the Oscar next month … well, good for him.

But I sure like films a lot better when they’re films, not self-conscious showcases.


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Mark J. McPherson February 5, 2023 - 12:56 pm

It can be fun watching an actor chew up the scenery and spit out the bits while the rest of the cast just stands around and gawks, but that can feel more of an impersonation (whether the character is fictional or based on real life) more than some embodiment of soul. Aronofsky, in particular, seems to get so taken with a performance, or by one of his own ideas, that the drop-off in attention paid to other elements is palpable, and there’s something of a stunt or showing off in his films.

It’s not as if a strong surrounding cast and a compelling script and direction distracts or detracts from a truly great performance. Colin Farrell’s turn in “The Banshees of Inisherin” is grounded in his playing with and off Brendan Gleeson and Kerry Condon, in particular, and by the quality of McDonagh’s writing. Another example is Cate Blanchett, in the earlier, “Blue Jasmine”. Her performance would be great in isolation, or even in poor company, but it’s more memorable because of what surrounds her.

stephen whitty February 5, 2023 - 3:02 pm

Thanks for commenting, Mark. Excellent point, re Aronofsky, whose films often feature extraordinary performances — Ellen Burstyn in “Requiem for a Dream,” Natalie Portman in “Black Swan” — but also run the risk of going off the rails completely (“The Fountain,” “Noah,” “Mother!”).


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