Darren Aronofsky opens The Whale by having his central character, the morbidly obese Charlie (Brendan Fraser), lead a virtual class on persuasive writing to a group of online college students. In it, he emphasizes the importance of having a strong thesis that’s supported by facts and reasonable interpretations of relevant material to form a cogent argument. In essence, he’s telling his 14 pupils over the internet that intellectual honesty is paramount if you want to convince someone of your ideas. This through line, supplemented by noting the importance of personal honesty as well, pervades the entire film, while also undermining it.
Part of that dishonesty is front and center in the form of Charlie himself, who lies to the class by saying a tech issue with his computer prevents him from broadcasting with video, when in reality he’s so ashamed of his appearance that he simply can’t bring himself to use a webcam. After the class is over, he begins to suffer a cardiac episode, only to be interrupted by a knock on his apartment door by a young missionary named Thomas (Ty Simpkins). Thomas enters through the unlocked door and tries to evangelize while Charlie is struggling through severe chest pains and labored breath, commanding through intense sweat that Thomas read a handwritten grade school book report on Mody-Dick to him as a means to calm him. So in the space of the first five minutes, we’ve had the main character lie to an entire class, and then introduced a Christian soldier who temporarily saves his life while intending to “save” his soul, even though the fact that he would randomly visit a shut-in living in the corner unit on the second floor of an apartment building beggars belief on its own, and of course Thomas interprets this as divine will at work. It’s very hard to engage with a story espousing the importance of honest thought after such a contrived display.
Alternating between maudlin, melodramatic, and mawkish, the actual text of The Whale is not good, and Aronofsky, a master of melancholy, doesn’t take full advantage of the opportunities he has to once again shine a spotlight on the dark underbelly of the so-called American Dream. However, a couple of the performances do elevate the material to the point where I could almost fully recommend the film in spite of its numerous flaws, the heart of which is its inability to form a coherent thesis for the audience to care.
After the initial near-death incident, Charlie is met by his best friend, Liz (an absolutely stellar Hong Chau), who serves as his unofficial nurse and therapist because he refuses to see a doctor or call an ambulance when he has these extremely dangerous moments. Liz informs the barely mobile Charlie that his blood pressure is so high that he’ll almost certainly be dead within a week, thus beginning the movie’s ultimate framing device of counting down the days until he expires.
In the little time he has left, Charlie decides that he wants one last shot at forming a relationship with his teenage daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink), a hellion on the brink of flunking out of high school because of her destructive behavior (including cyber-bullying and casually slashing her teachers’ tires). Reaching out to her for the first time since he walked out eight years prior, he offers to punch up/rewrite her English homework so that she can graduate, in exchange for some “getting to know you” time and the occasional bit of personal writing of hers just for him. Naturally, she tells him to fuck off until he sweetens the deal with the promise of all his life savings once he’s gone, a sum totaling nearly $120,000.
Now, before I go any further I have to talk about the almost literal elephant in the room that is Fraser’s performance and the presentation of Charlie. Even if he never spoke a single line of dialogue, you’d have to admire what Fraser has accomplished here. I can make a disingenuous joke about misrepresentation by not casting someone even fatter (Fraser has put on a lot of weight over the last few years), but the fact of the matter is that he had to really work through a lot to make this role work. Saddled with at least 80-100 pounds of prosthetics, so that he’s carrying a frame well over 300 pounds (and looking like someone from My 600-Lb. Life), the sheer act of basic mobility becomes an achievement in and of itself, one where Fraser had to work with a dance instructor for several months to figure out how to move under all that makeup, which will almost certainly garner an Oscar nomination. The struggle to put himself through even the most basic of paces is worthy of praise, to the point where in certain scenes I wasn’t entirely convinced that the profuse sweat was a pre-take spray bottle spritz.
Because in lieu of his usual breed of character study, Aronofsky leans into the grotesquery of Charlie’s situation. He has a drawer in his kitchen filled with opened, half-eaten candy bars. His living room is littered with pizza boxes and strategically placed soda bottles. A shower scene brings life to Bart Simpson’s overweight fantasy line of “I wash myself with a rag on a stick!” A moment of temporary shame leads to a binge/purge session where Charlie shoves entire slices of pizza into his gullet, two or three at a time stacked on top of each other, before going for a second helping where he adds cold ham and mayonnaise from his fridge. Fraser has to subject himself to all of this without reservation or hesitation because that’s what Aronofsky demands of him. There is so much more that goes into this performance than just the line readings, which are arguably the weakest points because the dialogue is so hackneyed and contradictory, that Charlie himself could have only been a more compelling character had he never opened his mouth other than to stuff food into it with the foley art cranked up to 11.
If this were the true core of the film, I think it would have largely succeeded, even if it would certainly have led to an even bigger chorus of critics crying about “fatphobia” (which isn’t a thing, stop adding bullshit titles and labels to people who are just being assholes as if it’s a legitimate civil rights issue). It definitely would have been the more honest story, rather than all the extraneous stuff put in around it.
There’s something in the idea of seeing someone take stock of their life and the mistakes they’ve made, and trying to reconcile and atone. Charlie, who left his wife and daughter after coming out as gay and starting a relationship with his male lover – in 2008 Idaho, no less – notes that he’s always been big, but after his partner (named Alan Grant – you people seriously couldn’t come up with a better name than the guy from Jurassic Park?) died, he went into an emotional spiral and ate his feelings until he became the monstrosity shown to us. Okay, that’s something to work with. He’s wracked with guilt over how he left his family, he didn’t find a healthy way to cope with a tragic loss, and now he’s at a point where mortality is staring him in the face and he has a chance to do right again, so that he can, as he puts it, show that there was one thing he did good in his life. There’s a lot that can be made of that, both dramatic and darkly humorous (Charlie’s facial expression at the realization that Ellie wrote him an angsty haiku is one of the best moments of the entire film), and there are lessons to be learned for anyone watching, the type of obsessive cautionary tale that Aronofsky has excelled with time and again.
The problem is that Charlie wants the credit without doing the work, which flies in the face of everything the movie preaches about. Arguments with Liz, Ellie, and his ex-wife Mary (Samantha Morton) that border on telenovela levels of scenery chewing all boil down to one of three basic assertions: I’m sad, Ellie is amazing and perfect, and we should all be more honest.
Well start with that last one, because in no way does Charlie – or the film at large – have a leg to stand on with this sentiment. He’s saved up all this money to give to Ellie, but he’ll spend none of it to do something actually useful for his daughter and live for her. He doesn’t have health insurance, even though that means paying a tax penalty (the film is set during the 2016 presidential primaries, while the individual mandate of the Affordable Care Act was still in place), and justifies that by lying to Liz that he doesn’t want to get saddled with medical debt because he’s too poor. What the hell, man? Spend $10-$20k of your savings for a full coverage insurance plan for a year and get the help you need to survive. Medications, therapy, surgery, all of these are legitimate options for you to continue living to see the fruit of your loins achieve something in her life that she, and you, can be proud of, and you’d be able to keep saving to make up the lost funds and more to give her years down the road.
Instead, Charlie is so committed to his own death as to treat preventable suffering as some noble burden he’s choosing to bear for Ellie’s sake, and that just doesn’t make a lick of fucking sense. As such, I found myself wavering back and forth as the film trod this weird middle ground between a compelling study of self-destruction a la Leaving Las Vegas, and faux-prestige treacle like The English Patient, complete with Ellie screaming the same sentiment I had for Ralph Fiennes to just die already!
This is kind of a sore spot for me, because I have seen plenty of real people with this degree of dangerous, deadly obesity. I’m overweight myself, though thankfully I never got to this degree of illness (I topped out at around 325 at my worst, now I’m at 250 and making progress at getting my diabetes under control), and when I look in the mirror, I don’t hate the person I see, which was very much not always the case. But when it comes to the people I’ve known in Charlie’s position, almost all of them died because they hit a point of no return and didn’t have any kind of financial resources or support to do anything about it. Charlie does have those means, and he chooses not to use them, because deep down he doesn’t actually want to reconnect with Ellie, but to be forgiven without any sort of meaningful effort to right his previous wrongs. Therefore, in a situation where Fraser and Aronofsky are trying to elicit as much pity and sympathy as possible, they instead – perhaps unintentionally – make Charlie into the ultimate example of laziness, a character flaw far too often associated with overweight and obese individuals in this country. Oh sure, he had a legit reason for the initial downturn, but that’s dialogue and exposition that we’re left to imagine. The person we’re shown on screen just gives up, and that’s where the movie comes closest to hurtful stereotyping.
This trite angle is then compounded by the fact that basically every character suffers from some form of daddy issue (though thankfully not as disgusting or misplaced as The Son). Charlie lives in regret for his failings as a father, and Ellie and Mary are more than happy to remind him of that fact in scathing fashion every chance they get. Thomas sees Charlie as his mission due to severe insecurities with each of his fathers, both earthbound and holy. Liz (and by extension Alan as her late brother) was disowned by her minister dad for not devoting herself to their cultish “End Times” church. Seriously, the only one who doesn’t channel trauma through patriarchal resentment is the goddamn pizza delivery guy, Dan (congratulations to Sathya Sridharan for his five seconds of screen time).
When it’s all said and done, The Whale comes up short in the very task it sets for itself in the opening scene, in that it fails to present a compelling argument for its own existence or assertions of intellect (which isn’t always necessary, but when you’re lobbying for Oscars, you need to actually raise the bar rather than just advertising that you are). This isn’t a bad film, per se, just wildly inconsistent in its tone and outright contradictory when it comes to its own highfalutin moral posturing. Fraser and Chau give fantastic performances, and Aronofsky does effectively make the viewing audience feel the right kind of discomfort when he wants to, through the superlative makeup and prosthetics. Amazingly, those things by themselves are almost enough to make this a great film. But for a story that pontificates so much about honesty, it relies too much on emotional manipulation through lies, turning something pitiable into something pitiful.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What’s the most transformative makeup job you’ve seen? Am I the only one impressed that a restaurant would deliver two large pizzas every day for just $20, including tip? Let me know!