A Troublesome Trio

Directed by Benjamin Caron ◆ Written by Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka ◆ Produced by Hyperobject Industries ◆ Distributed by Apple Original Films

The Whale
Directed by Darren Aronofsky ◆ Written by Samuel D. Hunter ◆ Produced by Rysher Entertainment ◆ Distributed by A24

The Reckoning (1969)
Directed by Jack Gold ◆ Written by John McGrath ◆ Produced and distributed by Columbia Pictures

This month we have three troublesome films to consider: Sharper, The Whale, and The Reckoning. Despite some deficiencies, each has something to recommend itself.

Sharper is a mystery that exhibits film noir pretensions despite being in color. It’s so complicated that it’s difficult to say what it’s about. It reminded me of what Winston Churchill famously said of Russia in 1939: “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” So if you like riddles that resist being deciphered, you may like this film. It boasts superior acting delivered by Julianne Moore, John Lithgow, and Sebastian Stan, accompanied by two mixed-race actors I hadn’t heard of before, Justice Smith and Briana Middleton. All are very good, but what their characters are up to is impenetrable until the last few minutes of their story.

I like a mystery as much as the next moviegoer, but I think it is unsporting if said mystery doesn’t finally add up. And this one, I’m afraid, doesn’t compute at all. To make my case, permit me to lay out the film’s twists and explore several of its blind alleys.

The first thing to be said is that although Moore, Lithgow, and Stan are announced as the project’s principal players, it takes at least 40 minutes before their first appearances. During this time, we’re occupied by the cute, playful romance between Sandra (Briana Middleton) and Tom (Justice Smith). They meet in Tom’s bookstore, where Sandra tells Tom she likes Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. She explains that she’s studying black literature at Vassar. After chatting and flirting for a while, she tells Tom that her brother is being threatened by the drug dealer from whom he purchases his narcotics. He needs $350,000 to stop the threat. Tom offers to meet the cost. He explains he’s the son of a billionaire and can easily manage it.

Does he do so? I have to admit, I don’t know. I don’t believe the drug thug ever shows up. But via this menace, we find out that Tom is the mixed-race son of Richard (John Lithgow, convincing as always, this time as a Manhattan billionaire), who has already advanced Tom a portion of what is to be his ultimate inheritance so that he could buy and run the midtown bookstore, which happens to include a first edition of Jane Eyre. Upon discovering Sandra is a fan of Bronte, Tom immediately gives her the book gratis despite its rare-book value of more than $30,000. As you can imagine, this seals the deal between him and Sandra.

But there’s intrigue to come. Sandra hides from Tom the fact that she herself is a drug addict being monitored by a parole officer.

From here, the plot becomes evermore dire and complicated. It also becomes increasingly wanton and mischievous, thus undermining the story’s credibility. I found suspending my disbelief an option that strayed more and more out of reach. And yet I kept striving to go along with the film’s machinations.

Try as I might, however, I could not follow. That’s because the story refuses to make this possible. Characters keep changing course until there’s no course at all. There’s only the appeal of the clever actors flitting in and out of multimillion-dollar apartments among the Trumpian blandishments of the uppermost of material comforts.

Does this tempt you? It did me, so I kept watching until the story reached its preposterous conclusion. All in all, this is a frustrating but oddly charming film. To say anything more would be to diminish its mystique. So let me move on to an entirely charmless, disgusting film.

The Whale stars an actor whose work I have always enjoyed. Brendan Fraser has played in many sorts of projects. He’s been a vine-swinging young man somehow resurrected from a primeval age, a youth whose parents have locked him in an atomic bomb bunker, a successful Los Angeles lawyer facing down black street-criminals while driving his adulterous black mistress home from work, and, in a different note altogether, playing in The Quiet American an American aid worker in Vietnam who is entirely out of his depth and whose innocence wreaks unintended havoc. And let’s not forget his role as a volcanist professor in the 2008 adaptation of Journey to the Center of the World.

I present this mini-catalog in order to certify Fraser’s versatility and his acting ability and to ask this question: why did he agree to play the Whale?
In this film, he’s the complete opposite of a daring hero. Instead, he’s an online writing instructor caught in the depths of despair brought on by an eating disorder. His nonstop gobbling has led him to become a 600-pound freak. No one, it seems, can restrain him.

In today’s cinema, inspired by Robert De Niro, Christian Bale, and Matthew McConaughey, monstrous weight gains and losses have become stunts, dangerous ones. Although I haven’t learned of any actor having been permanently damaged following this trend, I wouldn’t be surprised if one does suffer severe consequences in the future. And who can say that the actors who have taken this path already won’t, at some later point in their lives, have serious complications? Severe weight gain is a good way to develop diabetes and strain joints and ligaments beyond their natural endurance.

The makeup and technical people did succeed in making Fraser’s transformation look convincing. But even so, was it necessary to confront us with a freakish monster just to make whatever the film’s point is? Fraser does a credible job as the stay-at-home writing teacher, conducting his classes while sprawling on his couch. The full visual impact of what his character has done to himself comes when he stands up. His belly and abdomen descend to the floor as he shuffles from his television room to his dessert-filled kitchen. The filmmakers have catered to the audience’s maudlin desire to witness nausea incarnate.

In a television interview, you could see that Fraser actually put on enough pounds to qualify for a lifetime Weight Watchers subscription. In the film, however, this was merely the first step, which was then amplified grotesquely by a prosthetic body suit that the audience has to witness several times if we choose to stay with the film. I almost didn’t. I found the sight so sickening that I began to leave the theater twice. And I might have made it but for my son, who pointed out sotto voce that it wouldn’t be professional to report on a film I hadn’t seen. So, nauseated as I was, I stayed in my seat and went without the buttered popcorn and a Pepsi.

As I wrote this review, my son came to my desk to tell me that Fraser won an academy award for his role in the film. Why? Well, gross sentimentality always wins at the Oscars, and The Whale has 600-pounds’ worth of it. In 2014, Matthew McConaughey lost 50 pounds and won an Oscar for his role in The Dallas Buyers Club by looking near-death scrawny. It’s not difficult to do the math.

And now to reckon with director Jack Gold’s The Reckoning. This is a straightforward revenge film with a strong vein of class resentment. I first saw it in 1969 with my wife. We both liked it a good deal, largely, I now suspect, because its lead role was played by the exceptional Scottish actor Nicol Williamson. I watched it again a few days ago and discovered it wasn’t as good as we had originally thought. Perhaps we allowed our Irish Catholicism to color our judgment. Native prejudice, of course, shouldn’t be allowed to sway opinions.

The film makes its points well enough, and Williamson is, in the etymological sense of the word, terrific as a lower-class Irish Catholic. What he misses because of his Scottish pronunciation, he more than makes up for with angry resentment for the upper-class British characters. On re-watching it, I found the drama, although rudely effective, rather simpleminded.

Williamson is Mick Marler, an Irish-Catholic upstart who, by force of character and native shrewdness, has risen to become a top executive in the sales department of a major corporation that has flourished in producing office business machines.

When we first meet Marler, he’s driving to work in his Jaguar sedan. He’s a pushy driver, contemptuous of others on the highway, honking his horn and cutting them off at will. He’s the same in his office, hectoring his and other secretaries to bring him coffee and reports. Since this is 1960s England, the women don’t complain. Some even seem to enjoy his ways.

Then things begin to go south for Marler. He gets news that his father has died as a result of a brawl in a neighborhood pub. He had fallen to the floor, and a young punk kicked him several times. Marler rushes to his parents’ lower-class home and makes inquiries to find the boy who attacked his dad.

What happens next I’ll leave unsaid, lest I give too much away. Suffice it to say, the film’s conclusion is at once unnerving and oddly satisfying.

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