Where to stream it? Currently in theaters but will likely end up on Showtime like other A24 films
Starring: Brendan Fraser, Sadie Sink, Hong Chau, Ty Simpkins, Samantha Morton
Directed by: Darren Aronofsky
Intro: The Whale Review
Everyone loves a good comeback story. After years of his career puttering about, it’s exciting to see Brendan Fraser emerge back with a film that has award season-buzz.
For this reason, I was excited to see The Whale, a film that features what many critics have described as a career-defining performance from Fraser. But I was also intrigued by it for another reason: a persistent level of controversy that seemed to follow this movie online over its portrayal of severe obesity. Some felt it was inappropriate for Fraser to wear a fat suit or also play a character that is LGBTQ.
As a fat, gay man myself I have some thoughts of my own after seeing it. So here we go.
From Stage to Screen
The movie is based on a Broadway play of the same name by Samuel D. Hunter, who also writes the screenplay for the movie adaptation. It follows a man named Charlie (Fraser), an online college professor whose severe obesity leaves him confined to his apartment.
His close friend Liz (Chau), a nurse who acts as his caretaker, remains one of the only people he sees in-person. That is until a missionary knocks on his door (Simpkins) and attempts to convert him.
Through conversations between Liz, Charlie, and the missionary, we slowly learn about Charlie’s past trauma that led to his weight gain. Along the way, he also attempts to re-connect with his estranged daughter (Sink) who he hasn’t seen in eight years when he left his ex-wife (Morton) after coming out as gay.
Like its Broadway predecessor, the film features a small cast that is confined to a single location. Director Aronofsky furthers the sense of claustrophobia by presenting the story in a 4:3 aspect ratio. We remain up-close-and-personal with Charlie, even in his darkest moments.
Empathy or Exploitation?
Like Aronofsky’s excellent film Requiem for a Dream, the shots frame a story about a self-destructive character. Only this time instead of drug use, our protagonist is a victim of binge eating.
Every time Charlie stands up, the movie seems to pause and gawk at the image of the 6-foot plus Fraser in a realistic-looking fat suit. There’s a sequence where he binge eats pizza and we hear gratuitous mouth sounds as he clobbers down his food.
The music and cinematography in a sequence where he showers suggest you’re watching something that’s meant to be just as shocking as when Jared Leto’s Requiem character got his arm chopped off.
Charlie describes himself as “disgusting” and it’s hard to shake the feeling that however hard the movie tries to present a human-centered story of an obese person, it does it while not disagreeing with Charlie’s assessment of himself, either.
It should be said that despite this, Fraser’s performance is a triumph that pulls at the heart strings in all the ways it needs to. As do the supporting cast members. Like in She Said, Samantha Morton demonstrates she needs little screen time to make an impression.
Yet the script doesn’t do these actors any favors. The dialogue feels very contrived and unrealistic, written with a specific flair that works in a play but not a movie.
Final Thoughts: The Whale Review
I thought some of the initial controversy over Fraser’s casting was unfair. I’ve observed numerous instances in tabloids and social media where Fraser himself has been fat-shamed for his own weight gain over the years. For this reason, I thought he had something to bring to the role, and I wanted to give the movie a chance.
After seeing it, I think his performance is phenomenal and deserves every bit of awards consideration it can get. Yet that comes in a movie that overall just didn’t quite stick the landing.
The Whale is trying to say something important about a series of sensitive subjects: obesity, religious-based trauma, sexuality, financial struggles of the working class. Yet with a weak script and a creative direction that goes for sensationalism, it’s hard to find any meaning that isn’t skin-deep.