Tag Archives: Hong Chau

Carry That Weight

The Whale

by George Wolf

By now you’ve probably heard plenty of accolades about Brendan Fraser’s “comeback” performance in Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale. It’s all true.

And that emotional standing O at Cannes? He deserved it.

It’s a stupendous performance, in a movie that’s always struggling to keep up with him.

Fraser, under some pretty impressive prosthetics and makeup, is Charlie, who pretends his laptop camera is broken so his online writing students won’t glimpse his obesity.

Charlie spends almost every moment of the day in his Idaho apartment, resisting face-to-face contact with anyone except his caring nurse Liz (Hong Chau, Oscar-worthy herself). Liz and Charlie share a connection to the traumatic event that sent Charlie down the path of eating himself to death, and Liz’s frustrated admonishments about Charlie’s habits seem to have little effect.

What does stir Charlie from his destructive routine are two surprise visits. One is from Thomas (Ty Simpkins), a missionary from New Life Ministries. The other is from Ellie (Sadie Sink from Stranger Things and Fear Street), Charlie’s angry, spiteful and estranged teenage daughter.

Screenwriter Samuel D. Hunter adapts his own play, and while Aronofsky offsets the chamber piece roots with sufficient cinematic vision, not all of Hunter’s themes make an equally successful transition.

The Moby Dick metaphor is frequent and obvious, but woven as it is through the lens of a composition teacher, settles in as an organic and relatable device. Similarly, Hunter’s points about the often judgmental and unforgiving nature of religious groups aren’t exactly profound, but their character-driven delivery is welcome.

But the heavily dramatic relationship between Charlie and Ellie – and later, Ellie’s mother (Samantha Morton) – suffers from the stage-to-screen edit. Emotions often escalate from two to ten in an instant, straining authenticity and pushing the manipulative wave that threatens to consume the film.

It doesn’t help that Aronofsky’s camera flirts with fetishizing Charlie’s shame, though Fraser’s tenderness is always the film’s saving grace. His every expression is etched with a soul-deep pain that’s finally being pierced by a last hope for redemption. Far from the maudlin exercise this character could have been, Fraser’s is an endlessly compassionate performance that will not let you give up on Charlie, or the film.

And you may very well see the resolution coming by the second act, but regardless, don’t forget to have the tissues handy for the third. Every time The Whale needs saving, fear not, Fraser will keep it afloat.

Let’s Get Small

Downsizing

by George Wolf

Word is, writer/director Alexander Payne has had the Downsizing idea for years, apparently waiting for when a satire of endless greed and unapologetic self-interest would feel the most relevant.

Good timing, then.

Payne, working with frequent co-writer Jim Taylor, returns to the political mindset he showcased so effectively in the classrooms of 1999’s Election. Here, their palette is a not-at-all distant future where science has come up with a solution for global sustainability: shrinkage!

By reducing people and communities to a ratio of 2.744 to 1, the potential for a guilt-free good life is off the charts! That sounds pretty great to Paul and Audrey Safranek (Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig), and a hilariously obnoxious info-mercial (Lauren Dern and Neal Patrick Harris, killing it) seals the deal.

Of course, it isn’t long before human potential meets human nature, familiar class systems develop and, as Paul’s smarmy neighbor (Jason Sudeikis) points out, getting small becomes more about saving yourself than saving the planet.

For three quarters of the film, the satirical slings and arrows find frequent marks, and layers deepen when Paul starts hanging with a crazy new neighbor (Christoph Waltz) and his cleaning lady (Hong Chau, in an award-worthy, film stealing performance).

Payne and Taylor aren’t as sure-footed when the satirical tone gives way to the absurd, or when a budding pretense makes the opening of a white man’s eyes feel a bit too heroic.

But while the scale of Downsizing is small, the film is thinking mighty big. The new world it envisions is engaging, with sharp comedy, unexpected turns and the keen observational structure to make it all impactful.