Local Doughy Guy Confesses to Loving “The Whale”

Brendan Fraser smiling at us as Charlie from "The Whale".

Why is this man smiling?

“Brendan Fraser is back, and this time…he’s fat!

That was my first impression upon seeing the poster for Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale. Despite the reports of fanatical applause at film festivals that went on for weeks and caused repetitive stress injuries in some critics’ clapping muscles, I wasn’t immediately sold. Our clues to its content were an unhappy gaze into a short distance, a packed bookshelf behind his head, and the name of the director whose last three films were Black Swan, Noah, and Mother. I’d disliked one and skipped the other two. Also, yes, to a lesser extent there was the fat concern.

For most of my life, I was probably fatter than you. My weight-gain acceleration began when my fourth-grade teacher chose candy as her favorite positive reinforcement method, which was a pretty sweet deal for us honor roll students but got me hooked on extracurricular snacking outside the standard three squares a day, which my mom let slide and incorporated into the weekly grocery list despite the budget strain. Fortunately for our poor household, early-’80s junk food was cheap. By tenth grade I was up to 250. A 12-year stint in a restaurant job that had me running nonstop for 8-10 hours a night kept it level throughout the 1990s. Then I got an office job whose benefits package included a chair. My weight skyrocketed. A year-long fad-based diet following some blessedly blissful nuptials shaved off 98 pounds, but most of those (not all!) have returned since then with a steady, slothful vengeance.

Setting aside today’s most favored euphemisms, I’m objectively fat. And fat jokes aren’t my favorite. “It’s funny because they’re fat!” is a tired joke base that has to be extraordinarily crafted to score with me, which pretty much never happens. It’s why Chunk was my least favorite Goonie, why most Chris Farley SNL sketches weren’t reflex chuckle machines, why I laughed derisively at (not with) the Simpsons episode where Homer is aghast at weighing 260, and why my first sampling of Boy Meets World was also my last. It isn’t a sensitivity per se, but you can’t just show me a fat person and turn on a neon sign reading “PLEASE LAUGH”.

I’d hoped The Whale had loftier ambitions in mind, but I’d seen no film-geek contrarians standing behind thinkpiece headlines like “I’m Fat and I Love The Whale“. At worst I was concerned Aronofsky would concentrate less on character and more on jagged editing and freakish visuals that would render Our Hero a German expressionist monster. So I begged off its initial release until Fraser’s sure bet for an Academy Award nomination was certified. Then I checked it out as part of my annual Oscar Quest.

The poster was fair: Brendan Fraser is back, and this time he is fat, engulfed in prosthetics and probably touched up with CG to eliminate seams. But the potential “George of the Jungle: 25 Hard Years Later” sideshow is neither the point nor the heart of the matter. Aronofsky feels more restrained than ever here, possibly because for once he’s adapting someone else’s material (an off-Broadway play).

Fraser plays Charlie, an online writing teacher who ekes out a living from his Idaho house that his 600-pound bulk never leaves (nor do we, the audience). With his tutorial webcam shut off at all times, his students see him only as a talking black hole in the middle of their Brady Bunch grid. Presumably he’s a really effective and scholarly black hole — otherwise the Yelp reviews would bury his practice. (And yes, it may be too on-the-blowhole, but his literary background indeed lets Moby Dick provide a major plot point, though not in the superficial way you’d expect.) Meanwhile behind the laptop screen, his life is a parade of poor choices and their consequences, which predate his endomorphic state. Nine years earlier, Charlie abandoned his wife and daughter to go shack up with one of his young students, a relationship that later ended in tragedy. Ever since then, guilt has eaten away at Charlie, who in turn overeats daily as if food and feelings were a matter/antimatter combination that could nullify each other. It probably didn’t take him long to see the error, but he kept on anyway.

Fast-forward to today: Charlie’s dying. He refuses to venture out for medical treatment, complaining about the cost. He gets regular vital-sign check-ins from Liz (Hong Chau from The Menu and HBO’s Watchmen), his visiting nurse, de facto best friend, and contributing enabler. She breaks the news to him that his congestive heart failure gives him a week to live; after the heated argument that ensues, she mollifies him with a bucket of fried chicken she brought. She wants him alive and happy, but she can’t make him both without his cooperation. So she settles for one at the expense of the other, though not for complete lack of trying. (In between his occasional mini-heart attacks, the most frightening scene challenges her to save Charlie from choking on a sub sandwich, no mean feat given the implausibility of performing the Heimlich on someone five times her size.)

Other visitors come and go. Most prominent and scariest among them is his daughter Ellie (Stranger Things MVP Sadie Sink). After years of estrangement she shows up because of course she wants something from him; ostensibly his writing tutorship can salvage her grades so she can survive her final months of high school and escape on schedule. The more she comes over, the more her understandable rage toward her deadbeat dad emboldens her, and the deep wounds of his neglect drive her to become a vengeful tormentor. Sometimes it’s for revenge; sometimes she’s having too much fun.

Charlie can’t and won’t fight back. Not because of his physical limitations, though they don’t help. His heart may be too small for its job, but his capital-H Heart is too big for others around him. He apologizes again and again whenever he’s offended someone, or thinks he has, volleying cries of “Sorry!” at them like tranq darts that are never laced heavily enough. The only word he uses more than “Sorry!” is “amazing”, which he applies to everyone around him that he thinks is special deep down inside. Ellie is amazing. His students are amazing. His ex is amazing. His pizza delivery guy is amazing. In his mind, everyone’s amazing but him. You’d think a writing teacher would pepper other adjectives in there, but no. When he gives Ellie an impromptu assignment and her response is a quick dose of handwritten snark, his instinct is to ignore the surface insults and spot the cleverness in what she’s just done. Ellie’s suppressed, possibly irretrievable amazingness factors into the top-secret surprise he has in store for her. And his imminent demise is just one part of his ultimate plan.

“Complicated” doesn’t begin to describe the interplay that flows throughout the movie. Matters of grief and faith enter the picture and underline some of Charlie’s traumas. His sunniness is infectious even as his binges might trigger our “There but for the grace of God” reflex response. Indicators point to a humanist Moral of the Story about finding salvation through other people, which may or may not jibe 100% with some worldviews. Through it all, Fraser is more fearless than ever, playing a broken soul who may be his most sincere, optimistic character since Encino Man. (For what it’s worth, I would not characterize him as “jolly”.)

But the end of his journey, one borne of depression and self-destruction, can be a tough watch at times. Some folks in my physical range (or larger than me, or smaller) might have a different perspective. Everyone plus-size has their own story, their own physiology, and their own mitigating circumstances. We have our reasons, our excuses, and/or our verified medical conditions. Body positivity can be a great thing, a welcome encouragement and a sympathetic shoulder in a world that’s well known for stabbing us with its malicious unkindness. But no demographic is a uniform monolith, and the fact is that some folks are overweight due to not-great causes. We can’t just forbid all conversations about weight, label them “fatphobia” with thoughtless denial and shout them away so we can go back to the Instagram selfies and Likes that won’t prolong our lives any more than the cheesecake I ate tonight before finishing this entry will add any hours to my own.

The Whale isn’t primarily an anti-fat cautionary tale anyway. And to my relief, the film doesn’t mine for jokes at his expense; if you are laughing, then you aren’t paying attention.

Meanwhile in the customary MCC film breakdowns:

Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Other visitors to Charlie’s place include Ty Simpkins, the kid brother from Jurassic World, all grown up as a wannabe door-to-door evangelist who shows up at a crucial moment and decides that by bring Charlie to Jesus he might also redeem himself and his own sins. That isn’t exactly how sharing your faith should work, but his youthful mistakes are credibly handled, and with 60% less anti-theist scorn than I’d’ve expected. Later in the game arrives Samantha Morton (fresh off a small yet successful role that was the best part of the otherwise forgotten She Said) as Charlie’s ex, who’s more mature than their daughter but no less furious at what his past sins have done to her life.

How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after The Whale end credits, though there’s a Special Thanks to the real-life film company that made Our Hero’s, er, personal laptop entertainment content. If there’s another mainstream film that’s credited such a purveyor, I don’t need to know.

What do you, The Viewers at Home, think?

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