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Middleburg Review: Fatphobia Rules the Day in “The Whale”

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | October 23rd, 2022

Brendan Fraser in THE WHALE @A24

The Whale (Darren Aronofsky, 2022) 1½ out of 4 stars.

Despite my significant issues with The Whale, the new film from Darren Aronofsky (Mother!), one thing is certain: in the central performance, Brendan Fraser gives it his all. The former Hollywood heartthrob—star of such films as Gods and Monsters, George of the Jungle, The Mummy and The Mummy Returns—whose health problems forced him to step away from the spotlight for a while, is back with a vengeance, showing that he is still quite capable of throwing a punch (in this case, a dramatic one). Unfortunately, the vehicle in which he currently stars is a deeply problematic one.

Meet Charlie: a 600-pound gay man who has been depressed since his lover committed suicide years ago. He wasn’t always this big, but he takes ongoing comfort in shoveling food into his mouth as a way to cope with the stress of living. An online English professor who keeps his camera off lest his students recoil in horror (as he imagines they would), he lives alone in an apartment to which his best friend (and nurse) Liz (Hong Chau, Driveways) pays frequent visits. At this point, it seems like her presence is the only thing keeping Charlie going.

But that’s not true. It turns out he has a teenage daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink, Max on Netflix’s Stranger Things series), from an ill-fated marriage that ended when he left ex-wife Mary (Samantha Morton, Two for Joy) for Alan, the man who later killed himself. Long estranged from the girl, Charlie nevertheless harbors hope for a reconciliation before he dies from the symptoms of his obesity. That could be any day now, as the daily onscreen countdown reminds us. It’s only a matter of time.

l-r: Screenwriter Samuel D. Hunter and lead actor Brendan Fraser at the 2022 Middleburg Film Festival ©Christopher Llewellyn Reed

Breaking up his morbid daily routine is the arrival of young missionary Thomas (Ty Simpkins, Where’s Rose), who first barges in as Charlie masturbates to gay porn, his cries a mixture of pain and pleasure as his heart almost gives out. Charlie soon becomes, as Liz has long been, determined to save Charlie from himself, though his method involves prayer rather than medicine. Given that Alan was involved with the same church and that their restrictive beliefs led him to hate himself, Charlie wants no part of it. At least he has Ellie, nasty and vindictive to all around, to help keep it real.

Screenwriter Samuel D. Hunter has here adapted his own eponymous 2012 play, and while there are a few cinematic touches, both he and Aronofsky keep us almost exclusively inside the apartment. As such, it is a bit of a claustrophobic chamber piece. That could work, but the greater sin is the fatphobia stamped in every single scene.

While the filmmakers no doubt have sympathy for Charlie as a protagonist, the manner in which they present his body (Fraser, no longer svelte as he once was, but nevertheless in a very large fat suit) as potentially disgusting to all who might see it is not only outrageous but fairly clueless, as well. Perhaps they need to leave whatever rarefied circles they inhabit to go out into the world and experience human beings in all their glorious shapes and dimensions. Though we are a cruel species, I hardly think that in 2022 the sight of a very plus-sized person would elicit quite such horror. In any case, they want to have their movie cake and eat it, too, simultaneously milking the audience pity and stoking the voyeuristic repulsion. And the less said about the tired, self-hating gay-trauma trope, the better.

l-r: Screenwriter Samuel D. Hunter and lead actor Brendan Fraser at the 2022 Middleburg Film Festival ©Christopher Llewellyn Reed

At least the title need not refer only to Charlie’s weight. That’s right, Hunter brings in Melville for a spot of double entendre. It’s not enough to redeem the exploitation (it could even make it worse). Still, I’m glad Fraser is able to show off some serious acting chops. May he get a better role next time.

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), as well as a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is a former cohost of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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