Brendan Fraser’s controversial comeback film, The Whale finally hits Aussie screens today. From Fraser’s long overdue return to its troubling anti-fat premise, there’s a lot to unpack with Darren Aronofsky’s latest. We enlisted the help of writers and critics Nick Bhasin and Ben Boyer to help us make sense of it all.
Nick Bhasin: Hey Ben, so by now we’ve both seen The Whale, Darren Aronofsky’s adaptation of Samuel D. Hunter’s 2013 play.
Ben Boyer: Been there, done that, got the 5XL tee.
Nick: It’s a film that’s begging, dying, demanding to be taken seriously. And now that Brendan Fraser has been nominated for an Oscar, we have no choice. And yet, The Whale was probably one of the funniest movies I watched all year.
By the way, we should probably clarify at the top — lest we be accused of invalidating Hunter’s lived experience, and because this is tricky stuff to navigate — that I am a former large bodied person and you are a currently large bodied person.
Ben: How dare you.
Nick: Well, that’s our review everyone.
Ben: People take representation very seriously these days, as they should given the long history of fat jokes on film (see Fatty Arriving at Station, dir. Lumière brothers, 1896). Many people believe that fat jokes remain the last acceptable form of overt discrimination. But if the filmmakers were hoping this movie could be just ‘one man’s story,’ they are out of luck: This film had a lot of baggage from the get-go. I think a lot of us were hoping we might see a measured look at our lifelong struggles reflected back at us. Instead we ended up with something closer to “what if we re-cut Shallow Hal and made it a drama?”
Nick: I had read about the standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival (where literally every movie gets a standing ovation — they should change the name to the Standing Ovation Film Festival) and people being excited about the fact that Brendan Fraser, a huge movie star for several years who was in fewer movies for a while was now appearing in movies again.
But then I saw the trailer… that orchestral swelling, the single piano notes echoing as Brendan Fraser, in a CGI fat suit, says, “Do you ever get the feeling people are incapable of not caring? People are amazing.”
I had to grip the sides of my chair to prevent myself from falling off. I had to hold on to something heavy, something nailed to the floor. I felt like I was on that vomit boat from Triangle of Sadness. What was happening? What was this movie?
Ben: From the very beginning, it seemed clear that someone at the studio felt that they had to be very careful with the imagery around it. You barely get a glimpse of the titular cetacean in the trailer; and more notably — as it became the subject of various memes — they used that one single still image of a watery-eyed Fraser over and over again. All of this contributed to the worrisome impression that this was a sort of freak show.
“Step right up, folks, gander at the gregarious gargantuan gentleman…”
“Hey, is… is that the guy from Dudley Do-Right?”
“Well, you’ll just have to buy a ticket, won’t you?”
Nick: After watching the trailer, I expected the movie to be melodramatic and overdone. What I didn’t expect was to laugh as much as I did.
Ben: Oh, I laughed a lot. But as I sat there in the theatre, jumbo bucket of buttered popcorn leaving a twelve inch grease-ring on my lap (the telltale crop circle of the corpulent), and looked around, I realised that for most of the people there — the people glaring at me — this movie was a drama.
Then I started to wonder — if I was being honest with myself, was some of my laughter a sort of defence mechanism? Sure, fine, maybe. Was part of why I was laughing that I had forgotten about a jalapeño popper that I had snuck into the theatre under my armpit, and it was tickling me? Also yes.
But mostly I laughed because of the movie’s thick-headed stubbornness to even acknowledge the notion of nuance. This is a movie where Fraser’s character’s situation is represented visually by a scene where his willpower is tested by two drawers — one full of granola bars and the other full of candy bars — and it plays out like the Russian Roulette scene in The Deer Hunter.
(I also lost it when a guy in the theatre I was watching the movie in gasped in horror when a meatball sub was produced, knowing it spelled trouble for our thicc hero. Chekhov’s Hoagie.)
Nick: The way Charlie chows down was cracking me up.
Ben: I started jotting down notes whenever ‘La Ballena’ started having a meltdown. I consider myself a pretty decent snackmaster, but this guy was breaking new ground. I sat up in my seat – wheezing – as he busted out a doozy of a move: Two slices of Gambino’s pizza on top of each other, slap some cold cut ham on there, then give it a Hidden Valley shower with some ranch dressing glug-glugged directly out of the bottle. I’m pretty sure that’s all seven (nine?) food groups ticked in one meal. It took a lot of self control to not shout out a suggestion to the screen for him to sprinkle some Skittles on top as a decorative garnish.
Make no mistake – we can debate whether this is a comedy or a drama, but it is absolutely a body horror movie. The Whale grunts and sweats when he eats, food falling into fleshy crevasses, and we are absolutely invited to gawk, dared to find the humanity beneath the lip smacking and general moisture. And listen – I will occasionally drop some salsa on my cargo pants when I’m eating, but I don’t go full goblin mode on everything put in front of me. Is it possible The Whale just needed an etiquette class? Maybe if he would stop cranking his hog in the living room and put on an Emily Post video once in a while he wouldn’t be in this mess.
Nick: Given that we are meant to see the humanity in Charlie’s situation, I was surprised by how over the top the general portrayal of obesity is.
I mean, that shower scene… it feels like we’re meant to recoil in horror, then shake our heads with pity. And by the time the daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink) shows up with mean fat jokes, we’re meant to relate to her in some way as she looks at her father with disgust and resentment. In my screening, some people were actually laughing at those jokes.
Ben: I just think that reducing Charlie’s struggle to a series of grief-induced, bad choices is such a weirdly reductive look at the way that a person’s weight can be, as writer Heather Hogan says, “a tangled, mangled knot of physical, mental, financial, emotional, and social factors that is almost impossible to unravel.” It makes it seem silly when Charlie is gasping “everyone is amaaaazing!” while throwing back a bucket of chicken like it’s a tequila shot.
Wouldn’t it have been more interesting if Charlie had gained some weight – not a cartoonish amount – and has to deal with that much more subtle reality?
Nick: Agreed. And it feels like the audience is let off the hook by the fact that Charlie is killing himself with food like Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas (but with meatballs).
Wouldn’t it have been more interesting if Charlie had gained some weight – not a cartoonish amount – and has to deal with that much more subtle reality? You could still call it The Whale and jam your clunky Moby Dick metaphors in there and it would be the same – if not better.
And then we wouldn’t have to sit through the pizza guy taking a look at him and getting scared in a way that no one ever reacts to a fat person, or the students’ reaction on his Zoom class when he finally turns on his camera – all that preposterous giggling, as if they’d never seen anything like someone with a double chin before.
Ben: Yeah, that scene was the nail in the coffin for me; it felt absolutely unlike anything I have felt in my life as a fat person. Everyone sees fat people every day — nobody is doing the Sam Neill sunglasses thing when a husky daddy walks by.
The truth is far less cinematic: fat people are discriminated against in more institutional ways. We can’t buy clothes in any store, for no reason that makes any sense other than stores not wanting to cater to IRL fat shoppers. So a scene like that, hinging on the dramatic reveal of his face in the little Zoom window, rang so untrue I started juggling Maltesers in the aisle.
Nick: Then, by the time we’re supposed to be so utterly moved by the fact that it’s his daughter’s crappy essay that’s been giving him strength this whole time, we realise that the journey we’ve been on is even dumber than we could have imagined.
Ben: Everyone is understandably rooting for Fraser and his comeback story, and I get it. He’s someone a lot of us grew up with — I dressed as Encino Man at my wedding.
But you’ll have to forgive me if I seem a little suspicious about this movie having any impact at all in the way that either regular people or Hollywood approach fat people.
Brendan Fraser gets to go back to being normal sized now. (Apparently he already looks amazing.)
Hollywood can breathe an unobstructed sigh of relief that they don’t have to worry about the horizontally challenged for a while. Though it would be funny if this sparked a run of movies featuring our beloved childhood favourites in ILM-generated fat suits, chasing trophies.
“This summer, Freddie Prinze, Jr. and James Van Der Beek star as those twin guys on the motorcycles from the Guinness Book of World Records. Get ready to fall in love… with HAWGZ.”
Nick: I would love to see The Godfather: The Fatsuit Cut.
Ben: I think it’s also worth mentioning that this movie appears to be resonating with audiences who have never shown an interest in humanising fat people before it came in the form of Oscar bait.
But ultimately I think the biggest issue is that we have this movie, based on a play, which is based on a real guy’s personal experience, and that origin serves as a bit of pre-emptive defence — “this was my story!”
But the problem is that we live in Downtown Discourse right now, and everybody is blotto at the block party. And if you’re not prepared to engage in the topic of obesity with the broader strokes that everyone else is going to use to try to contextualise your film, you’re going to come off as overly simplified at best, or more likely totally insane, offering up a character that feels dishonest.
And this time, I’m sorry to say — Oscar nominations or not — this Whale got beached. (Sunglasses emoji.)
Ben Boyer lives in San Diego, California and likes to write about B-movies on his Twitter account, @sleezsisters.
Nick Bhasin is a writer in Sydney. His debut novel ‘I Look Forward to Hearing from You’ will be published by Penguin Random House Australia in June. Follow him on Twitter.