I recently sat for a double feature of two new releases.
On the same day that I saw “The Whale,” I also took in a showing of “A Man Called Otto.” Two movies could not be more alike and yet more different. In both “The Whale” and “A Man Called Otto,” the main protagonist is a damaged man struggling with depression following the loss of a lover, and is actively looking to end his life. But there the similarities end. For while “The Whale” is one of the most depressing movies I have ever seen, “A Man Called Otto” is a small treasure that is full of character-driven comedy and pathos that reaffirms the joy of living.
As I mentioned, “The Whale” is one of the most depressing movies I have seen in quite some time. Outside of the quality of a couple of the performances, there is nothing to recommend seeing it.
First, there is the story itself. If you intend on seeing “The Whale,” buckle up because you’re literally watching a 600-pound man eat himself to death. As an obese man myself, I certainly can sympathize to some extent with the feelings of the main character in the movie, but at the same time, the level of self-pity and 11th-hour remorse can be quite overwhelming.
“The Whale” is about Charlie (Brendan Fraser), a 600-pound gay man with congestive heart failure due to his morbidly obese condition, who desperately wants to reconnect with his resentful teenage daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink), who he had abandoned nine years previously when he left his wife (Samantha Morton) to live with his boyfriend.
Charlie is cared for by his nurse Liz (Hong Chau) who was the sister of his deceased lover. Charlie’s life has been in a downward spiral since the suicide of his boyfriend several years earlier, and we are the witnesses to the final week of this sad tale. Frankly, I found none of the characters, except the nurse, to be remotely sympathetic. Charlie is desperate to make amends, but he is the man who made the choice to totally abandon his daughter in the formative years of her life, and instead of trying to forge a bond with her years earlier, decided instead to engorge himself on food. The daughter should be sympathetic, but as played by Sink, she is so unpleasant a presence that any sympathy evaporates with each scowl and sarcastic remark. And then there is Thomas (Ty Simpkins), a missionary from some cult church who blows into the picture here and there and I could never figure out just exactly what was the purpose for his existence in this story.
The quality of the production and direction is mediocre; from the very beginning it wreaked of theater, and sure enough when I read up on it, it is an adaptation of a stage play. In no way am I denigrating stage plays, but there is a way to adapt a stage play into a movie so that it feels like a movie and not a play. Some very fine movies have been adapted from stage plays, such as “A Streetcar Named Desire” or “Driving Miss Daisy.” But there is a trick to adapting a play into a movie, and if you are not mindful of the pitfalls, you fall into the trap that bedevils “The Whale.” Every character entrance in this movie feels like they are coming out of stage left or stage right. There is no seamless transition from one scene to another — each scene feels just like the next scene in a play. The only thing missing is the stagehands moving the furniture around.
As for the performances, outside of Fraser and Chau, I was not impressed. Sink plays a variation on the character she plays in “Stranger Things,” but without that character’s saving graces. Ellie is so unlikable in this movie that any reservoir of goodwill you might have for her considering her background is totally lost. There is no nuance in her performance to help you see the hurt underneath; all you see is the anger. Morton, usually a dependably fine actress, really misses the mark here. The mother is an alcoholic and another victim of Charlie’s selfishness, but the only clue to her condition is that Morton takes a swig from a bottle every now and then. The character does not leave any impression. And Simpkins is totally out of his depth; his Thomas is a total blank slate from the moment he appears onscreen. I honestly think he had the same expression in the movie from beginning to end.
The best performance in the film is from Hong Chau. At the point the film begins, Charlie is a lost cause, and Chau expertly communicates this in her body language and line delivery. She very much cares for Charlie, but in every word and facial expression you can almost feel all the water under the bridge that has led her to this point of resignation and exasperation. Her performance almost makes the movie worth watching. As for Fraser, it certainly is a feel-good story to have an actor who had seemed to disappear altogether make a celebrated comeback, and it definitely is a very fine performance. He makes Charlie’s humanity burst through all the make up and prosthetics, and even though I had very little sympathy for him, his penultimate declaration to make things right was heartbreakingly delivered.
Finally, I took exception to the level of gratuitousness in the movie. Was it really necessary to show Charlie totally nude? We know that Fraser is wearing some sort of fat suit and makeup to make him look like a 600-pound man, so it isn’t a “brave” choice by an actor to play the role in the nude. You don’t need to see skin to know that the man is morbidly obese, so what exactly was the point of it? To show off what the makeup artists can do? As an obese man I can tell you that my weight is not something I try to highlight, but instead something I try to de-emphasize. By making it so visible, I felt it was a choice of people who really don’t know what it’s like to be fat. Frankly, it came off to me like a freak show.
And then there is “A Man Called Otto,” which truly seems to elevate people in all their peculiarities.
Otto (Tom Hanks) is a man who has just lost his beloved wife and cannot imagine continuing on in life without her. He is a rigid and abrupt man, not without empathy, but with very little patience with people who don’t follow the rules and lack common sense, and no filter to stop from communicating his displeasure. This brings him into contact, and inevitably, conflict with the various neighbors in his gated block, which include an elderly African American couple to whom he has become estranged, a young Hispanic family which has just moved into the neighborhood, a good-natured but silly jogger and a transgender paper boy.
Marisol (a delightful Mariana Trevino) is the matriarch of the Hispanic family, a young spitfire who quickly takes the measure of Otto and insinuates herself into his life. Whether by bringing him homemade food or maneuvering him into teaching her to drive, she brings Otto back from the brink and shows him that he is needed, and from this comes his redemption. It is a rare gift in the movies to show the concept of being useful. The movies talk about love, passion and sex; but rarely do they talk about the idea of being needed. The idea that each day of your life can be of use, not to yourself, but to others and from this comes your purpose. It is a chaste form of love, but one with just as high a purpose, and the movie brilliantly brings this idea to life.
As played by Hanks, Otto is a curmudgeon who rarely smiles and all his adult life has tasked himself with maintaining order, and he does not suffer fools gladly. Hanks is a great actor, and he brings to life this man with little grunts, raised eyebrows and a purposeful gait, but ever so gracefully he allows the mask to fall so that you see the very big heart that beats within, such that when his transformation is complete, it feels natural, like an evolution rather than a reveal.
I had much the same reaction to “A Man Called Otto,” and the Hanks performance, as to a similar film from a few years ago called “Saint Vincent” that starred Bill Murray. If you liked “Saint Vincent” and the Murray performance (or loved it, like I did) then you will probably have a similar reaction to “A Man Called Otto.” I truly wish Hollywood would make more movies like this one. I’m sure there are plenty of critics who decry movies like “A Man Called Otto” as sentimental hogwash (to quote Mr. Potter) and prefer the supposedly more true-life wallows in anguish like “The Whale,” but give me hard-won sentimentality any day.
I much prefer the way I feel walking out of the theater after watching a movie like “A Man Called Otto” than how I felt after watching the human train wrecks in “The Whale.”