A provocative but endearing piece of cinema that tackles relevant topics of fatphobia, homophobia, and coping with the trauma of bigotry and loss, rendered through a touching story of friendship — this could have been The Whale’s wishful cinematic adaptation. But instead, Darren Aronofsky’s torturing gaze chose to be faithful to the stage play that’s already problematic in the first place.
The film bears a bizarre existence, premiering at such a period in such a form and punctuated by a six-minute standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival. First and foremost, The Whale is a Brendan Fraser vehicle. The immobile character of Charlie stands in for the actor’s tumultuous recent history of immobility, divorce and depression. The film’s acclaim points to the revival of his career after leaving his first Hollywood decade with fatigue, broken bones and a case of sexual harassment. And it had to be made through Aronofsky’s careless and pessimistic handling of a bevy of sensitive themes all wrapped in a simple premise — a dying obese man wants to leave the world proving his daughter is an amazing person. And instead of tackling a worthwhile issue of how Hollywood has depicted fatness (and even queerness and disability), the filmmakers used it as a moralizing tale that’s ultimately Christian despite its several takedowns of evangelist cultism.
'The Whale' had to be made through Aronofsky’s careless and pessimistic handling of a bevy of sensitive themes.
The Whale as an adaptation was almost no stretch for playwright Samuel D. Hunter. The episodically stagey narrative seems to reset everyday for five days just so we can watch another treacherous episode for Charlie, stuck in just one drab apartment, his own stage for a series of exaggerated mishaps and monologues. Charlie is visited by five other characters — a nurse/friend, his estranged daughter, an escapist missionary, a concerned pizza delivery guy, and his ex-wife. They all have this tendency to cling to sudden messianic complexes and self-depictions of being a hero where only mini-monologues/manifestos are delivered, most of them clearly intending to help but without any action. This throughline isn’t really helping anything, not even the plot. And within two hours of intense outbursts, you wind up not really knowing anyone at all.
The film feels like an elaborately recorded play, neglecting any opportunity to utilize savvy visuals or narrative flourishes we have come to expect from Aronofsky. You’d get certain intertexts that could function as a relevant motif, like the Moby Dick essay which figures the titular whale’s prominence to veer away from the author’s melancholy. Instead, we get the opposite. Aronofsky uses his shamelessly auteurist spectacle of suffering, riding over careless handling of obesity and utilizing a fatsuit and a struggling actor to aid a random redemption arc. He’s unabashedly ignorant of the fact that his film promotes the common stereotype of the miserable fat person, with its many assumptions of a fat person’s anatomy and without insight into how obesity came to be the character’s problem.
The most baffling in this continuity of unlikely elements forcibly glued together is the fact that Aronofsky could have just picked a particular aspect and developed it into a film that spoke to his country’s growing obesity and fatphobic problem, with refreshing (at least for Aronofsky) care and caution. Take for example the friendship between Charlie and Liz, how they seem to not only form a bond because of a tragic incident but they’re evidently moving forward from trauma and looming reminders of mortality. In the complexity of their friendship, Charlie develops increasing dependence on Liz and it’s interesting how she handles his needs with both care and indulgence - checks his blood pressure at one point and then gives him some comfort food, appearing to be concerned and empathetic but also jokes around his condition. It’s a flawed chosen family narrative and it’s to the film’s disservice that their particular subplot (in an endless thread of subplots) was not expounded. Within Liz and Charlie’s relationship alone, there’s also a race aspect intertwined with a homophobic cult - a missed opportunity in the seemingly “woke” premise.
It makes you think how Hollywood chose to laud such a film in a media landscape that has begun to tackle fatphobia without myth and misinformation. TV shows like Shrill, films like Dumplin’, or rapper Lizzo’s discography and celebrity all point to the empowerment of plus-sized people onscreen. It’s high time for fatness to be brought back into the conversation in the post-#MeToo moment, in the interconnected discourses of feminism, LGBTQIA++, race, and class. As we await the proliferation of body positivity and well-informed handling of obesity in films, The Whale exhibits how not to go around it, and hopefully, its backlash is signaling a death blow to Hollywood’s historical fatphobia.