When the public learned of Darren Aronofsky’s new film “The Whale,” there was a groundswell of enthusiasm for the project. That early support had little to do with this adaptation of Samuel D. Hunter’s 2012 play being the first Aronofsky feature since 2017’s “Mother!”. Nor was this hopeful energy the result of another successful A24-branded marketing campaign. Five years was not enough time for the masses to forget the laughably bad fable Aronofsky foisted upon audiences the last time, and the only real advertising A24 had to offer for this film was a lone image of lead actor Brendan Fraser in a cartoonish fat suit, hair thinning, his iridescent blue eyes dewy from the threat of future tears.
Any early excitement “The Whale” fostered was owed entirely to being the theoretical centerpiece of “The Brendanaissance,” a much-desired comeback narrative for a once-beloved ’90s movie star abandoned by Hollywood and left to obscurity. Fraser was once the industry’s premiere on-screen himbo, before age and time altered his shape as he packed on some perfectly natural pounds. But for whatever reason, no one seemed to be troubled by that same performer exaggerating that real-life weight gain through elaborate prosthetics to play a 600-pound man.
“The Whale” sees Fraser play Charlie, a morbidly obese recluse deep into the process of slowly, guiltily, and dutifully eating himself to death. The only people Charlie interacts with are the students in his online writing course (he hides his face and body on Zoom) and his loyal pizza delivery man (Charlie leaves his payment in the mailbox to avoid any interpersonal confrontation). His only remaining friend, Liz (played by Hong Chau), is a nurse doing her level best to keep Charlie alive.
Sensing the end is near, Charlie attempts to reconnect with his estranged daughter, Ellie (played by Sadie Sink), a teenage malcontent still rightfully bitter at being abandoned at a young age. When Ellie was eight, Charlie left her and her mother (Samantha Morton) to be with his lover Alan, a man whose suicide from religious guilt over his homosexuality began the spiral Charlie is presently trapped in. Charlie offers his life savings to Ellie in exchange for spending time with him.
There’s also a subplot about a missionary obsessed with “saving” Charlie after walking in on him having a heart attack while attempting to masturbate to gay pornography. That unintentional meet-cute is how the film opens. It’s an awkward moment that also introduces the film’s pet motif: in moments when Charlie thinks he is about to die, he asks whoever is nearby to read him an essay about Moby Dick that holds a special place in his heart.
The film itself has a claustrophobic quality, both from the cramped, theatrical staging that keeps us within the confines of Charlie’s abode and the squarish aspect ratio bringing the borders of the image itself in against our protagonist’s considerable girth. Aronofsky makes the viewer an unwitting voyeur into Charlie’s self-destructive routines, depicting the challenges of his daily life using plausibly deniable storytelling techniques that belie how exploitative and off-putting these sequences actually are.
There’s a moment where Charlie opens a drawer full of granola bars, thinks about eating one, then, sullenly, shuts that drawer and opens the one beneath it, packed to the brim with candy bars. He eats several of them in one go. Every scene in the film showcasing Charlie’s binge eating has the relative sneering sleaze of your average “My 600-lb Life” episode. Still, in interviews, Aronofsky and his collaborators repeat the same mantras about the film’s dedication to empathy. But—as any cursory glance at photos from any of the play’s real-life productions will show—each image resembles a still frame from a Farrelly brothers comedy; the source material has a deluded and pompous sense of self-righteousness to mask its ugliness.
On the surface, the closest cinematic kin to “The Whale” might be “Leaving Las Vegas,” the maudlin 1995 film about an alcoholic drinking himself into oblivion that won Nicolas Cage an Oscar. But for all of that picture’s foibles, it has an honesty and an earnestness that doesn’t try to deceive its audience into thinking the film is anything other than what it is: an ornately arranged trainwreck for bystanders to gawk at.
“The Whale” prizes Brendan Fraser’s considerable talent, yes. But it leverages the general public’s adoration for him and their ache to see him made whole from the struggles he’s weathered. Aronofsky weaponizes the viewer’s ferocious desire to see Fraser either receive the financial windfall that comes with once again being the talk of the town or, better still, the gravitas that might come from getting a golden statuette of his own.
But there is no empathy on that screen. Aronofsky seems interested only in grafting Fraser’s lovable eyes and endearing visage onto an otherwise judgmental view of obesity. And in watching “The Whale,” a fatphobic audience might temporarily disabuse themselves of the derision and disgust they hold for the heavyset just long enough to pat themselves on the back for emotionally connecting with a cartoon for roughly two hours.
When the credits have rolled and Aronofsky’s unearned catharsis has drawn to a close, the doctors in the audience will continue to misdiagnose patients and blame their every ailment on BMI. Gym rats will continue leaving abusive comments on Lizzo’s Instagram posts. Skinny folk worldwide will continue to speak of gaining weight with the same frightened tone a rational person might reserve for being chased with a knife.
And, somewhere, another actor will take measurements for his tailored fat suit for his local production of Hunter’s play. The cycle will repeat itself.
“The Whale” is currently playing at The Charles Theatre.