The Whale is an emotionally manipulative movie trapped in its own gimmick.
Charlie (Brendan Fraser) is a reclusive English teacher suffering from morbid obesity. His late boyfriend’s sister Liz (Hong Chau), a Nurse, warns him that he has a week to live. Instead of going to the hospital, he attempts to reconnect with his estranged daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink).
The Whale challenges the audience to look beyond a fat suit and examine the inner life of a 600-pound man. Brendan Fraser succeeds through a memorable acting performance and comeback. His character is trapped in a world of his own making with effectively claustrophobic cinematography.
The rest of the movie, however, is crassly fatphobic and miserablist.
After you’re introduced to its obviously symbolic title – The Whale, the movie opens with Charlie masturbating furiously to gay porn that he almost gets a heart attack. As he attempts to read an essay to calm down his failing heart, a missionary from the end-times church New Life bursts into his apartment thanks to an unlocked door. Thomas reads the essay to Charlie (which somehow helps) and from then on, the young man becomes determined to save his soul.
The Whale continues on like this, showcasing the tragic life of a gay obese man as characters go in and out of his apartment. Aronofsky’s heavy-handed approach overshadows the empathy his movie is trying to elicit.
The plot meticulously shows how much effort it takes for Charlie to move while he also does nothing about his condition. You’ll see him use a brush in the shower to clean his enormous belly, the grease on his face as he gorges on food, and his labored attempt to retrieve a key for a door all set to melodramatic score.
The story has a revolving door of characters. The cast does a great job of wringing out emotions from their clipped lines but they’re one-dimensional. Liz manages to be an exception as she juggles the role of a healthcare professional and a friend.
And why doesn’t Charlie listen to her and go to the hospital and get therapy? he’s eating himself to death for Ellie, but the implications behind this reason are cruel for both of them.
All of this culminates into the main problem with The Whale – it humiliates its character in an attempt to say something important. Instead of a character study that explores a lived experience, it shows the horrors of morbid obesity. Instead of focusing on the psychology behind Charlie’s condition, it chooses to be a cliched family melodrama that revolves around it.
The Whale is supposed to be a story of optimism and redemption. In reality, it’s a contrived movie that celebrates defeat and offers simplistic lessons.
The Whale is a well-acted but voyeuristic heavy-handed melodrama that's crassly fatphobic and Miserablist.