The Search for Authenticity: The Whale (2022) - Reviewed


Photos courtesy of A24

"All visible objects, man, are but pasteboard masks"
--Moby Dick

Brendan Fraser has returned to acting after a many year hiatus, and was welcomed with open arms from both his peers and audiences alike. He has gone through some tough times: a sexual assault, the death of his mother, and a divorce amongst other things. Despite all of this he made it through, and at least for now, everyone is rooting for him. That is why it's even more interesting that he chose such a challenging role in a film by a Darren Aronofsky, a historically controversial director. Fraser has been through hell and back and he is not afraid of ruffling some feathers. Despite all of the discourse swirling around The Whale (2022) it is one of Aronofsky's most soft  and restrained works and Fraser is the heart that holds it all together.

Charlie (Brendan Fraser) is a man who has lost sight of himself while mourning the loss of his partner, a man he left his ex-wife and child for to pursue romantically. He has a binge eating disorder and over the years the weight he has gained has made him unable to move around without the assistance of a walker and given him many other life-threatening health issues. Since he lives in the upstairs area of his apartment complex he is trapped in his home and relies on delivery food and the help of Liz (Hong Chau), a nurse and the sister of his deceased partner. Charlie's health issues become more dire and this becomes the catalyst for him to wrap up loose ends, one of which is to reconnect with Ellie (Sadie Sink), his estranged daughter.

The Whale is based on a 2012 play by Samuel D. Hunter, and those origins can be felt in the setting as it takes place entirely in Charlie's apartment. While a single setting is practical for a play, in a film it can feel quite claustrophobic, though in this case, it reinforces Charlie's situation. He is trapped in his apartment like he is trapped in his body, unable to go out and interact with people on his own accord. Everything and everyone comes to him, which does feel a tad artificial at first, but finds an compelling rhythm after the first act.

The main criticism of the film is the use of a "fat suit" to make Fraser look like he weighs 600 pounds. Aronofsky is not a subtle director, and he is no stranger to using spectacle for provocation, but for what it's worth, he does pull back a bit with this film. There are a few moments where the film stops to acknowledge Charlie's body and what it can and cannot do, and depending on one's personal experiences it may come off as exploitation to some eyes. It never feels like full on leering, and overall the film is tender towards Charlie and his issues. However, those sensitive to issues surrounding fatphobia may want to steer clear, because some of the side characters are quite cruel towards Charlie, and I can understand how that might be highly upsetting.

Charlie has an obsession with authenticity, he is an online instructor that teaches students how to write effectively, but ironically he refuses to face his own problems head on, choosing instead to indulge in self harm via overeating. Really, this film is not about obesity specifically, it is about addiction, and how it can steal away time and motivation. There is a moment when Charlie's alcoholic ex-wife comes to visit, and with trembling hands she asks him if he has any booze she can drink. Side-by-side they are both consumed by their addictions, but society looks down more on Charlie because it devalues fat people to the point where their fatness overshadows everything else about them. The Whale doesn't address this directly or offer commentary, but that allows the focus to be on Charlie's character instead.

Brenden Fraser is outstanding in this role, relatable, occasionally funny, and with an endless supply of optimism that is heartbreaking. He wants to see the best in everyone no matter how terrible they might be. The story of Moby Dick comes up frequently, and though the title of the film seems like a dig at Charlie's weight, he is in fact, the Ahab of this narrative. He is searching for a great truth, but is plagued by the ramifications of his own delusions, unable to find his whale, which for him is his daughter. Like Ahab, Charlie doesn't want to accept help with his quest, isolating himself in his apartment until he is close to death. It is a tragedy through and through, but one that is beautiful as well because Charlie is an empathetic man with a lot of love to give even though he has made some mistakes himself.  

The Whale is a complicated film that doesn't pull any punches, and that will make it divisive with many people. It could also be seen as a bit too much on the melodramatic side, as it doesn't have the ironic detachment that many modern drama films lean on, and it wears its heart on its sleeve. Through all of this, at the center, we have Fraser, giving it everything he has, and even if you don't love the film, you have to love him for exposing his insecurities and offering them up for us to see. 

—Michelle Kisner