Review | Of whales and love’s conditions
- Published: February 1, 2023
We first meet Charlie as a disembodied voice. He’s a little black square labeled “Instructor” at the center of an array of young collegiates taking his online writing course. Having reviewed the most recent crop of essay drafts, the square warmly encourages his students to polish their thesis statements.
The class ends and we encounter Charlie the man, Charlie the body: He’s masturbating to a gay porn flick alone in his cramped, dimly lit apartment. The camera pans beyond the back of his thinning hairline and we see a 600-pound man suddenly going into cardiac arrest at the point of climax.
It’s the first of many scenes in Darren Aronofsky’s 2022 film, “The Whale,” that spur audiences to shift uncomfortably in their seats, cringing as they watch the protagonist of undeniable size — played by the almost universally beloved Brendan Fraser — struggle to help himself time and again. From start to finish, “The Whale” is an exercise in discomfort.
What keeps us from slipping into a perverse voyeurism, though, is the palpable, even intimate feeling of being in the room with Charlie — for better or worse. In almost every frame, Aronofsky crams us right beside Charlie; the beads of sweat running down his swollen jowls have nearly the same clarity as Fraser’s soulful blue eyes. He’s huge and he’s dying. “The Whale” forces us to reckon with this man’s end of days.
Now seems like a good time to point out the misleading double entendre of the film’s title.
Based on a play by Samuel D. Hunter, who adapted it for Aronofsky’s direction, “The Whale’’ is much more than it seems — which, not coincidentally, is one of the central maxims we’re meant to take with us. Perhaps the base or the lazy among us will chalk the title up to Charlie’s imposing size.
Some critics find themselves stuck on Fraser’s fat suit and deride the film for its depiction of obesity and binge eating. The kind folks at rogerebert.com dubbed the movie “abhorrent” and say it forced viewers to “wallow in [Charlie’s] deterioration.” Rolling Stone says we’re liable to be crushed by its “sensationalist weight.” I’ve heard others suggest that Fraser should have been replaced by a more “authentically” obese actor.
Given that I have a much different body than the protagonist — and perhaps a different body than those of the movie’s most vocal detractors — I acknowledge that I can’t exactly invalidate these viewpoints. And I don’t want to. Representation in film matters, and if someone suggests they were unjustly represented, who are we to quibble?
All that said, I can’t get on board with the assertion that “The Whale” punches down, and I’ll tell you why.
The grace with which Fraser carries the weight of his tragic character, the profound humanity embedded in the script, the frank explorations of bodily autonomy and disability — all of these elements prefigure Charlie as anything but a punchline. He’s not just another poorly written big character whose only function is to be a spectacle who prompts audiences to mutter, “Thank heavens I’m not him.” And you know, that’s more than the vast majority of movies can say for their treatment of obese people. The silver screen is often not kind to those whose bodies or minds don’t conform to Hollywood standards.
Despite all appearances, “The Whale” resists getting mired in those body politics. Instead, its small cast of characters each grapple with their own existential problems, and like any good play confined to a claustrophobic set, they bounce their prerogatives off one another like pinballs. We have Liz (Hong Chau), Charlie’s sister-in-law, de facto caretaker and ostensibly only friend; Mary (Samatha Morton), the wife Charlie left many years ago in favor of a male student; Thomas (Ty Simpkins), a young wayward missionary bent on converting Charlie; and Ellie (Sadie Sink, famously of “Stranger Things”), Charlie’s spitfire daughter who harbors a malicious grudge against her father for supposedly abandoning their nuclear family for a homosexual fling.
Each of these characters subtly exhibit their own addictions — the mother to alcohol, Liz to her work, and so on — and thus diffuse the presentation of Charlie’s life-threatening binging. They remind us that we all have crosses to bear, and that some happen to be less visible than others.
Liz tells us early on that Charlie’s days are numbered, and, as is often the case when death hangs in the air, familial tensions surface. Charlie’s self-destruction frustrates, horrifies and baffles his surrounding cast. We’re forced to sympathize, though: Charlie tells us he’s always been a big guy, but after the suicide of his lover — Liz’s brother — his eating “just got out of control.” Save for the addiction itself, there’s no real object or person to blame for the dysfunction, and so, the characters punish one another for much of the film.
The principle that governs all this drama, ultimately, is the simple little fact that we are all deserving of unconditional love. A child lashes out and hurls unforgivable injustice at her father; dogma precludes any mutual understanding between you and a stranger; a loved one’s substance abuse spirals out of control; a cynic refuses to see the sun shine — these people, all of us, deserve love in spite of it all.
“Do you ever get the feeling that people are incapable of not caring?” Charlie asks.
The caveat that “The Whale” calls to the fore, however, is that love may not take that deserving individual to where they need to be — rather, where you wish they’d be. I can’t love someone out of the throes of addiction. Emotional support can only go so far, and sometimes people never change.
Such endeavors — letting love in, or seeking to help those who refuse — may be as unavailing as Ahab’s pursuit of his white whale.
Perhaps we ought to try anyway.