‘The Whale’ knows exactly what it’s doing

Fraser: 60% prosthetics, still 100% adorable. Images courtesy A24.

The Whale is a difficult film to watch, not because of its heavy subject matter, but because the movie’s bad. It’s got an unconventional story structure that’s difficult to enter, it’s designed to be unpleasant, and it’s really manipulative and tearjerky while also wearing its stunt casting and effects work proudly on its sleeve. Director/producer Darren Aronofsky has said he made the film with empathy for fat people and pushed back against critics, but the fact is everything in the film is built to exploit America’s unhealthy relationship with food and fear of being obese. It is a movie about a monster with a heart of gold, and you need to agree that Charlie, a 600 pound man, is a monster as an entry point.

In The Whale, Charlie (Brendan Fraser), a writing teacher in late-stage heart failure, secludes himself as his life nears its end. He is beset upon by his daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink), a callous, evil grifter; his loyal in-home nurse Liz (Hong Chau), who is bent on saving him; and a new face in Thomas (Ty Simpkins), who, as a missionary, believes he is bent on saving Charlie, but is actually a callous, evil grifter.

Charlie weighs 600 pounds and is so ashamed of his appearance that he deactivates his camera while he teaches remotely and will not allow his regular pizza delivery driver to lay eyes on him. He uses a walker, which he is shown hoisting his pendulous gut onto, and later a heavy-duty wheelchair, to get around his apartment, in which he has installed worn-out handles in the shower and above the bed. He has $120,000 in the bank from his days at university, but refuses to spend any of it on medical care beyond these mobility aids – Liz works out of loyalty. He also carries around his daughter’s eighth grade essay on “Moby-Dick,” which he frantically pulls out and re-reads in moments he thinks he’s about to die. The title ostensibly comes from this essay, but also happens to be what we called fat girls in middle school – I used to be a teenage boy, I’m sorry.

Charlie has a flat character arc, meaning that he does not change and instead changes others around him. His goal is to spend time with Ellie before he dies, which he accomplishes by bribing her with money and offering to do her homework for her, and this plays out as an attempt to get her to believe in herself – really, it’s him luring her into his home and holding her hostage by the homework so he can lavish her with compliments while she calls him names and tells him to shut up and do her homework. It’s gross and pathetic in every direction.

His other points of interaction are Liz’ attempts to get him to take care of himself and Thomas’ attempts to convert him, both of which he resists as well.

Does Fraser deserve an Oscar? I mean, what does that mean? Who really “deserves” anything? I love actors, I think they should all get awards for everything they do!

Everything in the apartment arranged by production designers Mark Friedberg and Robert Pyzocha is meant to be disgusting. The walls are puke green and always underlit by the permanently cloudy sky peeking through the always-closed blinds and lamps that are more yellow than bright. It’s smaller than the average soundstage, closer to the size of an actual apartment, so it looks claustrophobic, and Charlie’s got his books and pizza boxes scattered everywhere like a real teacher. The handle above his bed is worn and fraying. The sound department gets in on the fun as well, cranking Charlie’s eating noises to the max at every opportunity.

The Whale carries a lot of Oscarbate and play adaptation tropes – the film credits original playwright Samuel D. Hunter as the sole screenwriter. It’s go the single setting and a lot of the big, weepy acting moments that fuel stageplays and Oscar nominations, which The Whale has collected two of for its performances. Fraser is, of course, the center of attention in what’s billed as a comeback role for a beloved turn-of-the-century action star, though it’s really a “comeback to prominence” role – he’s been in four films since 2019 following a five-year departure to television.

Film is not an acting medium the way the stage is. The stage is actors’ natural habitat where they can dictate the pace and mood of an individual show, but in film, they’re in a closed, designed environment, with a director who can shoot until he sees what he wants, a cinematographer who gets to choose where the audience is and an editor who gets to choose which takes get used, and those choices are all much more influential aspects of the art form than the performances they surround.  

Fraser was a trooper to act through 300 pounds of prosthetics, but he’s definitely not the only actor who could have done this. However, he is one of the only actors whose performance could be exploited for marketing in this way, and I have to operate on the assumption that was the real point. 

Ellie, already an evil little cur, ups the anti by photographing and recording Thomas without his consent and threatening to release the data to control him. This type of thing is commonly recognized as extortion today, but in 2014 when smartphones were still quite new, it would have been a lurid “from-the-headlines” move in line with the rest of the material.

Aronofsky, who said he waited 10 years to make the film until he decided he wanted Fraser in the lead, is no stranger to stunt casting. His 2008 film The Wrestler was billed as “the resurrection” of star Mickey Rourke, whose career was doing just fine at the time. Aronofsky also has a long history with the grotesque that makes it very hard to give him the benefit of any doubt. His first movie, Pi, ends with the main character drilling a hole in his own head, and he followed that up with everything that is Requiem for a Dream. In his most recent film, mother!, an angry mob tears the baby Jesus limb from limb onscreen.

Charlie’s queerness is another aspect of the film that could be asserted as empathetic, trying to make him into a more complete person, but is completely in line with textbook tropes about queer people that die and queerness as monstrosity, and I’m actually going to dock The Whale even more points for bi erasure here. Charlie describes himself as gay and refers to his eight-year marriage as a mistake. This is what drives his estrangement from his family – his ex, Mary (Samantha Morton), isn’t homophobic, but she does object to being viewed as a dark period in someone’s life. The possibility of Charlie being bisexual is never brought up. This could, of course, be a reflection of Adrienne Rich’s ideas about compulsory heterosexuality, but we’re not giving a movie that can’t say the word “bisexual” credit for advanced gayness.

What really tips The Whale’s hand is nothing happens to Charlie that couldn’t happen to a normal-sized person. Forty million people, an estimated 1-2% of the entire global adult population, are in some stage of heart failure right now, with underlying causes that can include smoking, diabetes and high blood pressure, but when it happens to Charlie, it’s because he weighs 600 pounds. Anyone can choke on their food because we’re shit-designed mammals who eat, breathe and speak through the same hole, thousands of Americans die that way every year, but when it happens to Charlie, it’s because he’s a big, disgusting tubster who scarfs his sandwiches down as if he’s afraid they’ll disappear. His obesity certainly has little to do with his real sins, abandoning his wife and daughter for a student half his age and refusing medical care.

If Charlie were a reclusive 150 pound man with a bum ticker, nothing about The Whale’s plot would need to change. Only that he wouldn’t be framed so grotesquely. Only that the movie could no longer be billed on the allure of gawking at the 600 pound freak. Only that the title wouldn’t be a double-entendre.

Death, addiction, depression and family relationships are all on that “very special episode” axis of subjects that intensify a story without really making it better. The Whale’s imagery is extremely limited, so we’re dipping into better “Moby-Dick” movies.

It’s also important to note that Charlie doesn’t in any way have a heart of gold. The movie plays out because he has neither the strength to get over his boyfriend’s death nor the conviction to kill himself more quickly, nor does he have the respect for Liz to send her away. He has a flat character arc not because of any real narrative point, but because he doesn’t have meaningful goals in the first place and is too scared to leave the apartment to pursue them if he did. Like The Menu a month earlier, The Whale hinges on sympathy for a character who sets the plot in motion by being a giant pussy.

He also doesn’t have the self-respect to stand up to his evil daughter, whose attention he pines after like the desperate, dying puppy he is. Charlie praises the titular essay, which is critical of “Moby-Dick,” as one of the best school papers he’s ever read because “it’s honest” and rearranges his entire teaching philosophy around it, causing many of his tutoring students to fail by telling them all to trash their English teachers’ favorite books, when the plain reality is his daughter didn’t get it because of course she didn’t! She was an eighth grade girl whose father just walked out on her, and some asshole was forcing her to read “Moby-Dick!” The stance, the titular stance of the show, is “My daughter isn’t acting out because I abandoned her, she’s actually a genius, and all book reports are going to look like this within five years, you’ll see!” maintained over a period of years. Charlie’s attempt to re-frame this essay as some kind of messiah for middle-school academia isn’t out of love for his daughter, it’s mental gymnastics born of his desperation to assuage his own guilt. It’s absolutely pathetic, and that’s the movie’s emotional core.

I’ve watched a lot of friends get depressed and self-destruct. Some fall in a bottle. Some start relationship-hopping or get really into anti-vaxx nonsense. Some start sleeping 12 hours a day and insisting they’re always tired. There’s no end of films about self-destruction, many by Aronofsky personally, that aren’t built on America’s horribly unhealthy relationship with food and body image. I have no sympathy, for Charlie or any of my friends. We all face challenges, and we’re all stuck in bodies that will eventually fail. Handling that fact poorly doesn’t make you special.

All of this has been done before with actual empathy, so we know what that looks like. In “The Sopranos,” Tony Soprano’s obesity is used in every conceivable way. When he’s intimidating debtors or another gangster, his body dominates the frame, and he frequently looks like he’s going to envelop them whole. Everything about his character, his greed, his insatiability, his poor mental health externalized as poor physical health, but also the wealth and security and power that the other characters gravitate to, is wrapped around his belly for all to see.

Charlie is always dripping in sweat with visible stains on his shirts, and is shown masturbating himself almost to death in The Whale’s first shot. More than 20 years after his introduction, Tony Soprano is an enduring fashion icon and sex symbol who never masturbated in his entire life. Far from an advertising gimmick, Tony’s weight, which actor James Gandolfini put on deliberately for the character, is a major part of the show’s legacy, and not an entirely positive one – in one episode, a character angrily spits at Tony that he’ll have a heart attack in 10 years, and 10 and a half years after that aired, Gandolfini died of a heart attack at 51.

Charlie is introduced hyperventilating with a tracking shot around the far side of the back of the couch, which eventually reveals him to be masturbating to gay porn. This moment is used to introduce him, Thomas and the essay, which he directs Thomas to dig up as he believes he’s stroked himself into his final heart attack. His ability to orgasm is eclipsed by his weight in his first moment onscreen. Image unrelated. 

We’ve also seen binge-eating as self-harm, The Whale’s crisis scene, done much more empathetically. In one incredible scene in Foxcather, a forgotten 2014 biopic of Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz, Schultz trashes his hotel room after a poor performance and then orders what looks like hundreds of dollars worth of room service to binge out of his weight class, disqualifying himself in a way that his handlers couldn’t get around while destroying the body they’d put so much effort into. It’s an expression of considered self-hatred that lingers on the immediate aftermath on Schultz’ body, all of which is taken from his autobiography.

After watching The Whale’s version and listening to the Whoopie cushion-perfect splort of mayonnaise as Charlie slathers it into a pizza-slice sandwich, it’s pretty clear that the whole thing is a joke.

The most disgusting part is I can feel The Whale working. For a couple weeks after seeing it, when I stretch my mouth to fit the puffy bun of my delicious bar cheeseburger, is it because I’m 600 pounds and need appropriately oversized food? When I fold my slice, is it because I’m a good Northeastern boy, or do I really need to be trying to fit pizza in my mouth more easily? When I hear myself breath while I chew, is it as gross as Charlie’s elevated eating noises? These are things I need to do to live, and The Whale is designed to make them seem gross and horrifying.

The lurid horror and freakishness of Charlie’s body is the defining aspect of The Whale’s advertising, the play’s central conceit, the center of the film’s awards push and the principle it was visually and audibly designed around. Aronofsky’s “who, me?” approach to criticism for how the film portrays its subject matter, a portrayal that’s completely in line with the rest of his filmography, is a joke. He’s made an ugly bed, and he needs hoist himself up and lie in it.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com. 

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