“I’ve never had so few food orders as I have for this movie, people mostly order drinks.” That’s what a nice young lady taking my order at Alamo Drafthouse said as I sat down for a screening of The Whale.
This is one of those unique dine-in theaters. The place has high quality food and drink, and yet I was not surprised to hear this. “I’ll have the salad,” I replied. To wash it down, I had a shout beer at the ready.
You may have heard of The Whale because of the well deserved buzz about Brendan Fraser (“The Mummy”, “Airheads”) for his award worthy performance as the lead, a troubled, obese man named Charlie.
A video went viral of the six-minute standing ovation Brendan Fraser and the movie received when The Whale premiered at the 79th annual Venice Film Festival. Was it worthy of the hype? I had to see this for myself. Now that I have seen The Whale, I feel this adulation was warranted.
The Whale is about Charlie, a man who never leaves his apartment. This is in part out of embarrassment for how overweight he is, but also because of his lack of mobility. He works as an online college professor and eats fattening and sweet food the way a junkie chases a needle. Charlie does not look at food as fuel for his body, he eats to fill a void, a sense of loss and regret from his past.
A small group of people visit Charlie and they all seem to have ideas of how he should proceed with his life, a life he is cutting short. Among this talented cast is Sadie Sink (“Stranger Things (TV)“) as Ellie, Charlie’s teenage daughter who he ostracized years ago and now desperately wants to reconnect with. Hong Chau (“Downsizing“, “The Menu”) plays Liz, a nurse who visits Charlie to take care of him during her off hours.
To complete this trinity is Ty Simpkins (“Avengers: Endgame”, “Insidious”) as Thomas, a missionary who happens to knock on Charlie’s door at this most vulnerable time in his life. Or did fate bring these two together? This is a simple and effective writing device. Each character who orbits Charlie’s life has their significant viewpoint, the medical professional, the spiritual voice and family.
Samuel D. Hunter is the screenwriter of The Whale, it was deftly adapted from his play. This is a first produced feature screenplay for Hunter who is a playwright from Idaho, where this story is set. This is an impactful Drama, with carefully structured writing.
Many critics seem to be praising the acting, but dumping on the story. The Whale is a well crafted, contained character piece. It gives us an honest, grounded portrayal of obesity that we have not seen before. Sure it may be unsettling at times, and difficult to watch, but the unflinching truth often is.
I’m not sure what these critics were expecting out of an actor driven, award contender, explosions and other stunning set pieces? This subject is a perfect basis for a character drama.
It tackles the day to day struggles someone like Charlie would go through, like simply standing up and walking, or bending over. Yet this never feels overt or preachy. We see the gallon sized soft drink thermos on Charlie’s side table, but it is never talked about. Like any great writing, subtext is key and things are set up that we had no idea would be so important when they are called back later.
Art is subjective, and critics have reversed their opinions over the years. I realise this type of story is not for everyone, but that does not mean the movie itself is flawed or is any less relevant. Some negative response could be because we all bring our own individual baggage as audience members. I must admit, I am no exception to this.
I struggled with obesity for over ten years. At 5 foot 7 I once weighed 230 pounds, I was clinically and by definition, obese. When I was twenty-years old I lost 80 pounds and never looked back. It was the most difficult thing I have ever done, and the best.
My weight loss was long ago, before some people started to claim that obesity is a disease that is not based on lifestyle choices. It was long before body positivity was taken so far it flew in the face of common sense medical practice. For the record, I do not have anything against body positivity in general, just when it ignores the facts. Charlie is able to acknowledge the physical state he is in and how it effects his health.
It was nice to see The Whale address this epidemic without getting political. The movie was never making fun of Charlie, well, there was one small joke at his expense. People tend to find ways to laugh in hard times don’t they?
Maybe it was the use of a fat suit that was off putting for some. I did not feel it was the wrong choice, seeing as it was not done for comedy purposes as many movies have done in the past.
I have never watched reality shows like My 600 pound Fiancé, or whatever it is, but I imagine that programming is mostly shock value and has lack of respect for the subject. Not at all the case with this movie.
Under all those prosthetics, Brendan Fraser finds a way to let Charlie’s humanity shine through. It’s in the eyes, perhaps Fraser was channeling his own personal and mental health struggles here. Articles have covered this at length, so no need to repeat it. Just know it felt present in his stellar performance.
The Whale was skillfully directed by Darren Aronofsky. He is no stranger to telling stories about addiction, with credits such as the drug hazed Requiem For A Dream, even Black Swan and The Wrestler dealt with fame and success as a form of addiction.
This bold portrait of Charlie’s life was lensed by Matthew Libatique, a cinematographer Darren Aronofsky has frequently collaborated with from the beginning. Colors are part of this world on screen, but much like Charlie’s sense of hope, they’re muted. Yet the forms and substance are clearly visible.
In a subtle way The Whale is a super hero movie, not the scaling of buildings kind, the cinemas have enough of those. Without giving away any details, Charlie’s super power seems to be finding the good in people, although we can be flawed. He wants people to be honest with themselves and others.
This is the kind of story we need right now for many reasons. According to the CDC, between the start of the Covid-19 pandemic through November 18, 2020, 30.2% of Covid hospitalizations in the United States were attributed to obesity. Being obese also greatly increased the risk of death among these patents.
While the end credits rolled, people in the theater wiped their tears away, I may have been one of them. The lights came up. Before I exited I stopped to look at the various dining table tops around the theater.
A full plate of chicken wings were left, only two wings eaten, the bone was half exposed. At another seat, one of the other few to order food that day, sat a large steel bowl full of popcorn. That bowl could serve three people I thought, and they never touched it. They should have had the salad. A weary world rejoices.
With that, I stepped out into that good night. Walking with confidence, one foot in front of the other I thought, they don’t make many movies like The Whale. Maybe that is a good thing, because then we can really appreciate the ones that find their way to us. The stories that fill our hearts, our minds but not our stomachs.
4th September 2022
Samuel D. Hunter
1 Hour 57 Minutes
THE QUICK SELL
A reclusive English teacher attempts to reconnect with his estranged teenage daughter.