By now, anyone paying attention to the way movies are received (especially online) understands that there exists a kind of prewritten criticism for a movie like Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale, in which Brendan Fraser dons a fat suit to play Charlie, a 600-lb.-or-so writing instructor in Idaho. To many, the fat suit simply invalidates the performance of its wearer, if not the entire film. This is a knee-jerk response. To The New Yorker, Aubrey Gordon whose Instagram handle is @yrfatfriend, described the pre-release climate like this: “The impression that I’ve gotten from pretty much every fat person I know has been, like, just hunker down and wait for this to be over, because it’s going to be awful.”
The knee-jerk, though, is well earned. For years, actors have donned fat suits for glory and/or laughs, the former of which Fraser received on the fall festival circuit, which included marathon standing ovations at the Venice and Toronto film festivals. The practice of thin actors playing fat theoretically takes roles away from fat actors and threatens an insensitive portrayal from someone who doesn’t have the lived experience to truly understand what they are portraying. Acting is, of course, being what one is not, and representational fundamentalism can obstruct nuance. But the anti-fat suit argument is reasoned and prevalent enough to make The Whale’s very existence in 2022 astonishing. The predictability of its content is at such a magnitude that it is unbelievable. How can something so on-the-nose in its perpetuation of the stereotype of fatness as a potential death sentence be so lauded? Did no one think, “Maybe a movie about a fat guy made by non-fat people needs to do a little bit more than describe fatness as prescription for misery?”
I emphasize the identity politics of it all because they are inescapable. They underpin every shot of Aronofsky’s film, which is presented in the 4:3 aspect ratio that defined pre-widescreen television. This crams Charlie into the frame and ensures that you can’t see past the fat suit in many, many scenes. I mean that metaphorically and literally. Charlie never leaves his apartment over the week or so depicted in the movie, giving the production the feel of a play, which The Whale just happens to be adapted from. (Its playwright, Samuel D. Hunter, also wrote its screenplay.) Charlie eats vociferously from a bucket of fried chicken, keeps an open bottle of Diet Pepsi on his nightstand, hoards candy in a drawer, and he can’t walk more than a few feet without risking his life. Nor can he masturbate without nearing heart attack. This happens at the beginning of the movie, after he jerks off to gay porn, hand under sweatpants. Why someone in their own home would opt to reach under instead of just removing his pants is mysterious—perhaps Aronofsky felt some images were too abject or humiliating, though Hunter’s script seems to know no bounds. The first words Charlie’s formerly estranged daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink) says to him are, “Does this mean I’m going to get fat?” She calls him disgusting, and when a young missionary named Thomas (Ty Simpkins) who has started buzzing around Charlie in hopes of saving him expresses surprise that he has a daughter, she shoots back, “What’s more surprising: that a gay guy had a daughter or that someone found his penis?”
Aside from the revolving door of visitors who walk into his apartment, announce their intentions, and then leave, which also includes his nurse Liz (Hong Chau) and his ex Mary (Samantha Morton, who delivers the overwrought film’s most natural performance), Charlie hides himself from the world. This includes keeping his camera off during the Zoom writing course he teaches and leaving money in the mailbox so he doesn’t have to come face-to-face with the pizza delivery guy. The movie, though, works out ways for his eventual revelation to these parties and the horror that his body inspires in them, as well as the added humiliation of being ridiculed by his daughter on social media. Throw in a climactic binge, a near-death experience via choking on a cheesesteak that requires Liz to perform the Heimlich maneuver using a couch arm, and a meditation on how difficult it is for Charlie to both reach up and bend down, and you have about as much insight as your average episode of My 600-lb Life, as Gordon said to The New Yorker (and before she’d even seen the movie, to boot).
Fraser, considered a frontrunner for Best Actor at the upcoming Academy Awards, wields sad eyes and a gentle affect that are frequently devastating, especially given the barrage of indignities he faces even as a shut-in. But given what we know about the way fat people are treated in culture, The Whale is often redundant. Explaining the extent of Charlie’s mistreatment—by others as well as himself—means displaying it, and the movie is overwhelming in its cruelty. That’s the point, but the point, belabored as it is here, makes for an excruciating viewing experience.
Charlie nonetheless remains hopeful but is only punished for it. In response to his daughter’s mocking Facebook post, he says, “This isn’t evil, this is honesty”—the kind of honesty so missing from the young people he instructs in his writing course. Charlie may believe that “people are amazing,” but this is a movie about limitations, not possibilities. Like Charlie, The Whale itself has mobility issues. It goes nowhere. It threatens to buckle under its own weight, as a surging, string-laden score attempts to convey poignancy in a script and performances that come to us already slick with tears.
And no matter how thematic its imperfections, we’re still left watching a movie with mobility issues that goes nowhere. Hunter told The New Yorker that he modeled his play after his own experience with “pretty rapid weight gain throughout my early twenties.” To Variety, he specified: “To be clear, this is not a story about everybody who grapples with obesity. It’s how it presented in me. My depression manifested physically as I self-medicated with food. Fortunately, I had support in my life. I had parents who loved me, and I was able to deal with some of my demons and go to therapy and become a healthier person. But The Whale is about a person who didn’t have that support system.”
It subtracts nothing from Hunter’s experience to point out how predictable a path he has laid out for his character. In one of the most curious of Charlie’s nuances, he remains fixated on an essay about Moby Dick (you know, the book about the whale), which he uses to soothe himself throughout the movie. There’s a section that seems particularly apt that goes: “I felt saddest of all when I read the boring chapters that were only descriptions of whales, because I knew that the author was just trying to save us from his own sad story just for a little while.”
The repetition of this section seems to suggest that Charlie’s size hides greater pain deep down—he points out to Liz that his internal organs are “two feet in, at least”—which is yet another predictable observation about fatness. Charlie’s sadness has many sources; it’s stated that he gained substantial weight after the death of his partner, whom he left his family for and continues to grieve. The bigger picture is a patchwork of pain, though the idea that Charlie relates to his fatness as a device is pat, at best. More troubling, there’s nothing here to suggest that Fraser, Aronofsky, and Hunter aren’t also using Charlie’s size as a device, which is exactly what people were afraid of.