The Whale: Drama in Theory, Comedy in Practice

The Whale is a film by Darren Aronofsky and an adaptation of a play of the same name, both written by Samuel D. Hunter. The story follows Charlie, an extremely obese English professor who is slowly, intentionally eating himself to death and attempting to reconcile with his estranged daughter before he dies. 

Before I tear into this film, I want to acknowledge two specific parties that deserve credit: first, the costume/effects department, who crafted a very realistic, disgusting fat suit for Brendan Fraser, the lead actor, the only prominent figure involved in this film who deserves any praise. We are never given an exact weight, but he looked to be around six hundred pounds. Fraser has earned the recognition he has gotten for this role ten times over. He doesn’t do anything particularly novel or groundbreaking with Charlie; he is simply very, very good. 


Brendan Fraser Over-Acting a Little Bit

I don’t think he necessarily deserved to win Best Actor at the most recent Oscars on the merits of his performance, but given his career arc, and the devotion to the craft it takes to gain as much weight as he did in order to take on this role– and the bravery it takes to do so in the first place– he deserves it more so in the abstract. I don’t know if he should have an Oscar for this, but he deserves to have one in general. 

As far as visuals go, there’s almost nothing to say. The entire movie takes place in Charlie’s small, cluttered apartment and there are single-digit shots outside of it. I understand why they did this: Charlie is basically immobile–his world shrinks as his body grows–but it sacrifices any and all potential for interesting visuals. It is married to this sickening blue and brown color palette, the same ethos as art you would find in the lobby of a dentist’s office. 

This film is structured around a plea to the audience: empathize with Charlie and understand his situation. Obesity this severe is arguably the worst physical condition a person could be in, and this film asks us to confront what that looks like. 

I don’t want to offer more than a passing reference to things like fatphobia, body positivity, nutrition, or any other real-life issue surrounding weight and health that The Whale might deal with. I am simply not invested in that world, I don’t have anything substantive to offer, and I outright disagree with many (if not most) of the conclusions that the communities surrounding those issues have come to. 

I do not think this film is harmful or problematic in any way. It doesn’t read to me as “fatphobic.” One of the controversies surrounding its production was the lack of actual fat people involved in the project, and I simply don’t think this is a problem. 

And I wish this type of thing wasn’t necessary, but to prove I’m coming at this in good faith: I have always been a noticeably overweight person. It has never affected my health, social life, or daily functioning in any significant way, but it is a factor. It’s something I think about and try to fix. So I say this as someone who can empathize with people who struggle with their weight, with full respect to them and Brendan Fraser, and with the understanding that fat-shaming is wrong: The script is so bad that Charlie is basically a cartoon character, and as a result, I could not find his story sympathetic. Instead, I found it funny. 

Again, I don’t think this film is unethical, but it is distasteful and undignified. It handles its subject matter poorly, and is so absurd that the whole thing becomes an unintentional dark comedy. 

The opening scene features the protagonist–our “whale”–pleasuring himself to explicitly gay material so intensely that he suffers a heart attack. As this happens, Thomas–a Jehovah’s Witness analogue who tries to help Charlie throughout the film– walks into his house. As he’s dying, he asks Thomas to read a passage from an essay about Moby Dick–a book about a whale with its own homoerotic undertones. This is so forced and heavy-handed, but the film thinks it’s so smart that this essay passage is read several more times later on. It gets a little bit funnier each time. 

There’s a scene where Charlie eats an entire bucket of fried chicken and three candy bars in about thirty seconds. There’s another scene later on where he eats two slices of pizza stacked on top of each other, drinks directly from a bottle of ranch dressing, then eats a grape jelly and Doritos sandwich, which he quickly vomits up. We see him eat a lot, but the only thing we see him drink is Diet Pepsi, you know, because he doesn’t want to get fat. 

Nothing in this film is dignified. It all feels like a sick joke, but one that does get a laugh out of me. To be clear, this is not a compliment, the humor is born from failure. 

 This is especially true for Ellie (Sadie Sink), Charlie’s teenage daughter, another cartoon character who is literally evil. It’s hard to explain, so here’s an example: 

At one point Ellie slips some Ambien in Charlie’s sandwich, causing him to fall asleep. She then starts smoking weed. Thomas asks her where she got the pills and she says “I had sex with a pharmacist. Just kidding, my mom pops them like Tic-Tacs.” When Thomas gets up to leave, she threatens to poison Charlie with the rest of the Ambien bottle. She then offers Thomas a hit of weed and when he refuses, she threatens to falsely accuse him of rape. This all happens in the span of about thirty seconds. 

Sadie Sink as Ellie, the Evil Child

Ellie is a constant onslaught of edginess, and the only time it’s tolerable is when she’s directing her venom at Charlie. At one point, she takes a picture of him and uploads it to Facebook with the caption “there will be a grease fire when he burns in hell.” I laughed so hard at this that I had to pause the movie. 

It’s revealed that Charlie left her and her mother to run away with one of his male students. She has every right to hate him. If my deadbeat dad invited me over to his house after nine years of absence, only to make me watch him refuse to seek treatment for his deadly disease, I would be pretty pissed off too.

Thomas’ attempts to help Charlie end up working, as the film’s ending heavily implies that he dies and goes to heaven. Ellie reads the Moby Dick essay passage as he laboriously waddles across the room– Fraser’s facial contortions really sell how difficult this is. When he reaches her, he begins to float into the air as the screen goes white and fades into an image of the family on the beach, Charlie staring into the ocean. This is the only moment of the movie that works; it’s abstract but not ambiguous. It’s not earned, per se, but it’s telegraphed and makes sense within the context of the narrative.  

The most frustrating moments are when the film hints at a different direction that it could have gone in. There are traces of a body horror film in here, and it should have leaned into this a bit more. At one point Charlie mentions that mold grows in between his folds of skin if they aren’t cleaned. He says he has sores on his rear end and that there’s a blob of fat on his back that’s turned brown. I wanted to see all of that. I wanted to see Liz, his nurse and best friend, have to help him go to the bathroom. I want to see people react to him in public–there should be a scene where a doctor mistreats him because of his weight, which happens frequently in real life. 

They mention that Adam, his lover, was rail-thin before he committed suicide. This would have been a great opportunity to show the other end of extreme diets. It’s never stated that he starved himself to death, but if that was the case, then having his heartbroken lover eat himself to death is a smart parallel that should have been visually explored. You could have framed it as an anti-eating disorder thing. I don’t know, anything other than this would have been fine. 

This movie is kitschy, Oscar-bait garbage. It is obvious and melodramatic, closer in quality to a middle schooler’s slam poem than a worthwhile emotional exercise. It falls apart because it tries to be powerful more than it tries to be good. I could only enjoy it in brief flashes and against its own terms. Even after completely disregarding any potential ways it could be offensive in a more serious sense, it still offended me by being a sad, gross misfire. 

The Whale is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video