A few years ago, John Malkovich donned a fat suit in “Bitter Wheat,” a tongue-in-cheek David Mamet play about sexual predator Harvey Weinstein. Inflated hype put it on the radar, but the play flopped in London. Critics called it sloppy, tacky, and in a chief verdict that’s become the kill shot for anything non-woke, insensitive. But their final gripe—no doubt shaded by a lingering hatred for Mamet’s pivot to conservatism back in 2008—was that the play was boring. Where it should have been daring, à la “Wag the Dog,” or “Glengarry Glen Ross,” watching a fat, powerful, all-too-familiar movie mogul seduce his prey was anything but.
In a strange, parallel turn, and with a much heavier fat suit, Brendan Fraser is trolling critics with his lead role in Darren Aronofsky’s “The Whale”—a no-frills adaptation of the 2012 play by Samuel D. Hunter. As a surprised Matt Walsh (who probably hasn’t seen or heard of “Bitter Wheat”) mentioned, critics are going after “The Whale” with unusually harsh vitriol.
Warning: Spoilers ahead.
Between the stubby prosthetic limbs and a rolling, drooping fat suit, it isn’t too hard to understand why. In “The Whale,” Fraser plays Charlie—a gay, introverted, morbidly obese English instructor trying to rekindle his relationship with a teenage daughter before his heart collapses. While Fraser gives 200 percent dedication, it’s still grotesque—and that’s on purpose.
If you’ve seen the trailer, you know what you’re in for.
In unflinching shots that pulse with the dread of a horror flick, the director of “Requiem for a Dream,” and “Black Swan” gives Charlie, his demons, and his morbid obesity no quarter. Knowing he’s dying and refusing to spend his savings on life-prolonging medical care, Charlie can’t help himself. He devours whole pizzas in less than a minute, and scarfs fried chicken by the bucket. When his feisty caretaker Liz (played with spirit by Hong Chau) threatens to stab him if he doesn’t control himself, Charlie claps back at her.
“Go ahead,” he sneers. “What’s it going to do? My internal organs are at least two feet in.”
Aronofsky defends Charlie as a complex character, with warmth and wit in unexpected places—but his quip that the whole movie is “an exercise in empathy” is harder to stomach.
As the setup goes, Charlie lives by himself in a shabby, northern Idaho apartment, teaching online classes with his camera turned off. After a young runaway turned Christian missionary named Thomas stumbles into Charlie’s cave, we learn that Charlie abandoned his wife and 8-year-old daughter for an affair with a male student long ago. Haunted by religious guilt (in the body positivity age, is there any other kind?) and belonging to the same church Thomas reports to, Charlie’s lover committed suicide. Alone, and cut off from his daughter Ellie after a nasty custody battle, Charlie has spent the last decade gorging himself to death.
In the movie’s opening moments, after a pornography session nearly turns into a heart attack, Charlie begs a bewildered Thomas to read an essay Ellie wrote in middle school—a crumpled book report on Moby Dick he’s kept like a relic.
In between gasping and thinking this is it, Charlie recites his daughter’s essay in a kind of extreme unction.
When Liz tells Charlie he’s about to die, he invites Ellie over for an overdue reunion. In the years since he abandoned her, she’s become a cynical, troublemaking brat—at least, Charlie believes, on the outside. In an effort to connect, and to encourage her to pull her grades up and graduate, Charlie promises to rewrite her “F” grade essays for her. Repelled by what she sees as a pathetic attempt to rebuild the relationship, Ellie visits nonetheless—to the tune of the $100,000 he’ll give her after he’s gone.
With all that, and with Ellie and Liz lashing Charlie’s appearance every chance they get, it’s no wonder the insensitivity charges piled up. But these at least have some merit. Critics’ cries of appropriation, on the other hand, are hysterical.
Unlike Charlie, Fraser is neither gay nor obese—and that matters zilch. The fact that we’re hearing about it isn’t surprising, but it’s a sad reminder that the culture’s puerile allegiance to identity politics is, as of yet, evergreen. While “The Whale” comes with nauseating moments, it’s refreshing to see Fraser blow past the stigma over who can play what by simply doing his job well. Despite prosthetic Jabba-the-Hut folds that swing down to the knees, Fraser’s focus on the expressions, the labored movements, and the suffocating shame of someone who weighs 600 pounds brings remarkable pathos.
Gross as he may appear, Fraser is not boring. And with Hong Chau, and 20-year-old Sadie Sink as the fanged, misanthropic Ellie, he leads an equally non-boring cast.
As far as fat shaming goes, the counter is that we pity Charlie, and we even root for him.
While it may or may not be an exercise in hate, empathy (or, as some suggested, an inverted passion of the Christ with Charlie and his bulging frame absorbing everyone’s sins) and the longing for redemption comes through loud and clear for everyone. But while Thomas wants to convert Charlie, and when Liz scolds him with F-bombs but then cuddles next to him on the couch and offers him fast food, Charlie pins his hopes on one person: Ellie.
Before he goes, rather than taking a single step toward restraining his appetite or seeking the medical care that would keep him alive, he wants Ellie to know he loves her. He wants her to know she’s worthy of being the best version of herself. The more he takes her abuse and loves her back—like someone willing to take the hissing, and scratching rage of a cat trapped in a tree—the more everything comes into focus.
Gross stuff included.
The cringeworthy shots of Charlie scrubbing fat folds, or choking on a meatball sub he’s eating too fast are short and tactical. They’re obvious foils making a dare: look beyond the monster and see the tender, quivering, calculating human beneath.
It’s no accident that Aronofsky plays on fear and repulsion for an overarching concept. If you’ve seen “Requiem for A Dream” or “Black Swan,” you know he’s a master at it. In fact, Fraser’s performance and Aronofsky defending it as a kind of “tough love empathy” aren’t where the trouble lurks. Both work where they should, gripping us in a profane, piercing, and touching character drama.
When, at the end of their first meeting in many years, a deeply wounded Ellie humiliates Charlie by asking to get up off the couch and walk to her—of course, and even with a pathetic, Sisyphean effort, he can’t do it—we pity both of them. When Ellie’s mother tells Charlie how deranged she is, and Charlie insists that deep down, she’s as beautiful as he remembered, we want to believe him.
By the end, and with the unifying restraints of a stage play-turned-movie—one location, rising action, minimal characters tied together by events of the past—”The Whale” works too well for its own good.
“Do you ever get the feeling,” Charlie whispers, “that people are incapable of not caring? People are amazing.”
Hopeful enough—until the people in question cheat and destroy their families.
Until they eschew meaningful, painful change for years of self-medication.
While Charlie’s character arc touches and rouses, bribing his daughter to bring their relationship back from the dead is a crude attempt to have his cake and eat it too.
In this case, that’s an awful lot of cake—and Charlie’s hope that his daughter can save him is a kind of secular catechism, a profession that with enough understanding, enough accepting of everyone’s inner goodness, we can raise each other to life.
That it thrusts a message about the salvific power of fuzzy inner goodness into the spotlight is the true problem. The pathos, like so much Fraser flesh, is raw and quivering. The magical, Sampson-like ending when an expiring Charlie rises, once again, to walk toward his daughter, is cathartic and moving.
But in a permissive age where empathy masks cruelty, and when young adults disband their families and threaten suicide if imagined pronouns go unused, is celebrating inner beauty the bromide we need?
Samuel D. Hunter writes from the theater enclave of New York City—heavy Ibsen territory, and a secular sanctuary where repressed desires are sacred and inviolate, and where destructive impulses that break families apart are hailed as liberating. The hope that people turned to for two millennia for deep, cleansing forgiveness is casually brushed aside in Thomas’ youthful backstory and his cartoonish call for Charlie to repent.
The fact is, he really should.
Not for being obese and repellent but for everything else. Where “The Whale” mumbles something about inner beauty, something about believing against all odds in freer, unrestrained versions of ourselves, it sinks under its own massive weight.
Watch it for the performances—Fraser’s and everyone else’s. But don’t swallow what it has to say. Unlike the weird fat suits, that item has been on the menu for some time, and we’re reeling from the indigestion.