Sympathy for the Fat Man
Charlie (Brendan Fraser) is a pathetic figure. How pathetic is he? Initially, only his voice is heard on a web conference with his students, who see him as a black square. (He claims that his webcam is broken.) Immediately afterwards, Charlie is revealed to be a morbidly obese man, sitting alone in a drab apartment, masturbating to a pornographic video on his laptop. The activity is too strenuous for him, and he starts coughing violently. He grabs a printed essay from an end table and tries to read it, but cannot because he is having trouble breathing. (As you may have guessed, The Whale is a love it or hate it experience.)
Fortunately, a young man knocks on the door. Charlie mistakes him for someone else and tells him to come in. Thomas (Ty Simpkins) enters and after a moment of being disoriented by what he sees, asks if he should call an ambulance. Charlie asks Thomas to read the essay, which he does, and the words calm Charlie down. Charlie asks Thomas who he is, and Thomas says that he’s sharing Christ’s message. Charlie tells Thomas that he’ll have his friend Liz (Hong Chau), who’s a nurse, come by and that Thomas can go. Before leaving, Thomas asks why Charlie wanted him to read the essay. Charlie says that he thought he was dying and wanted to hear it one last time.
Now that The Whale has your undivided attention, it proceeds to explain itself in a serious yet casual manner. (The movie is based on a play, with all of the action taking place in Charlie’s apartment.) Charlie suffers from heart disease, which is no surprise given his physical condition. He teaches on-line English courses, which work out perfectly since he is practically an invalid. Charlie was married and has a seventeen year-old daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink), but he hasn’t seen her since the divorce nine years ago. He left his family to be in a relationship with a student in one of his night school courses. (The student was an adult.) Charlie’s partner later committed suicide several years later, and Ellie has grown up to be an angry young woman.
The last two pieces of information would seem to answer the question of why Charlie is eating himself to death. He has resorted to binge eating as a way to alleviate his feelings of guilt over what happened to his partner and his daughter. However, as the story unfolds and more information about Charlie’s past is revealed, the question of his guilt becomes murkier. Is he punishing himself for things that were not his fault? Should he feel guilty about deciding to live his life honestly, even if it meant destroying his family?
The Whale asks the audience to empathize and sympathize with Charlie, a character who is pathetic, guilt-ridden, self-destructive and off-putting. Watching this movie may sound like a chore but it’s not, provided you take the movie on its own terms and resist passing judgment on how it depicts its subject. Both the movie and its main character are predicated on honesty, which can be brutal, harsh, shocking and ultimately freeing.
Director Aranofsky has made a career out of studying people bent on their own self-destruction. Charlie’s weapon of choice, binge eating, is no different from abusing alcohol or narcotics. (If you don’t believe me, watch Aranofsky’s horrifying Requiem of a Dream.) Depicting a character whose eating habits are linked to his emotional state is not controversial. Neither is showing how guilt (or depression) can lead to binge eating. Watch any episode of “My 600 lb Life” and you’ll get basically the same message. The question as to whether the movie’s depiction of Charlie is exploitative is irrelevant, because the movie’s concerns are not about weight, but how our perceptions of the consequences of our actions can lead to our own downfall.
While The Whale is an emotionally intense movie, its adherence to its stage origins keep it from being great. The symbolism is obvious and the link between Charlie’s deceased partner and Thomas strains credibility, a contrivance used to generate late stage theatrics. Thankfully, Fraser and Chau bring nuance and sensitivity to their line readings. Fraser was great in FX’s Trust and The Quiet American, but this is best performance by far. The same can’t be said of Sink and Simpkins, who come off as emoting for a live audience. The movie could have used more of Aranofsky’s visual flair to take the audience outside of the box that the characters are constrained within. Ultimately, Fraser and Chau’s performances are the reasons to keep watching. Recommended.
“Just write something f****** honest.”Charlie
As an English major and recreational writer, I understood where Charlie was coming from. Whenever I’ve written something to please someone else, all I end up with is something that is either boring, phony or both. I certainly can’t speak for all writers, but the best writing I’ve ever done came from a place of honesty. This can make writing harder or easier, depending on the subject. I try to stay focused on the end result. What if what I’m working on is the last thing I ever write? Would I be proud of what I’ve written? Is it good enough to warrant someone else’s attention for the 10-15 minutes it takes to read? If I’m honest with myself and what I write, I believe that the piece will be something I’m proud of and confident that others will enjoy reading it. (Agreeing with what I’ve written is an entirely different matter.)
So, in the spirit of honesty, I will say that I have difficulties overcoming the artifice that comes with an adapted stage play. This doesn’t mean that I can’t become engrossed by the movie version. The best adaptations I’ve seen find ways to extend the story beyond the physical boundaries of the material. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and The Father are two recent examples where the filmmakers found ways to make the story feel more cinematic. They still have stagey sequences where the characters are in a single room, but the production never feels hermetically sealed off from the rest of the world.
The Whale doesn’t quite reach that level of transcendence. I was always aware that the events were taking place in one apartment. Aranofsky allows for a few glimpses of the outside world via a window Charlie uses to feed a bird and the entrance leading to the apartment, but there should have been more. Aranofsky also includes two brief flashbacks to a moment at the beach, the last time and place where Charlie, Ellie and Mary were happy. They were beautiful images, but two is all we get. Aranofsky is an incredible visual artist, both formalistically and naturally, and his restrained direction here surprised me. The movie has fully ingested the aesthetic of a stage performance, with the camera unobtrusively capturing the dialog and the action. The movie works despite this no-frills approach, though.
Stage plays are written to be performed in front of a live audience. As such, all of the dialog has to be spoken loud enough for everyone in the theater to hear it. The performances in The Whale fall in that category, with the exception of Fraser and Chau. They are able to lend intimacy to their characters, and their performances are what ultimately made the movie work for me. Sadie Sink’s performance as The Angriest Girl in The World was a tad overdone. Her line readings are all at the same level, and would have been more effective with some modulation in tone. I felt the same way for Samantha Morton’s Mary, a typical bitter ex-wife. Ty Simpkins’s Thomas is one-hundred percent theater kid, but his character has moments that allow him to express different emotions. (His monologue where he explains why he ran away from home is his best moment.)
I suppose all stage play adaptations, even the great ones I mentioned above, are obligated to incorporate the overt (clunky?) symbolism in the source material. The Father had the missing watch. Ma Rainey’s had the door that refused to open. For The Whale, it’s the bird on the window, which presumably symbolizes Charlie’s relationship with Ellie. There’s also the shadows of people walking past the closed window blinds. Maybe that symbolized how life was passing Charlie by, while he kept himself sequestered in his apartment. I don’t know why filmmakers who adapt plays feel compelled to keep these contrivances. They work well enough on stage, but in a movie there are other ways to get a point across.
The Whale is filmed with a 1.33:1 ratio, reminiscent of an old television screen. Aranofsky apparently wanted to keep everything the audience sees in the same ratio of Charlie’s laptop screen. Some viewers might find the black bars on both sides of the screen distracting, but I was fine with it. It’s the only intentional visual touch Aranofsky allows himself throughout the entire movie, so I won’t begrudge him that.
I’ve noticed that I’ve spent a lot of words describing everything but what the movie is actually about. Perhaps I’m like Ishmael, focusing on whales instead of dealing with the matter at hand. Before I dissect the story and what it means to me, I want to mention how I appreciated the play’s inclusion of two classics of English literature, Melville’s Moby Dick and Whitman’s Song of Myself. Yes, they are two Dead White Males who are probably out of fashion with those that establish the literary canon. Even still, as an English major I got a kick out of them being key elements of the story.
I’ve seen all eight of Aranofsky’s feature films, something I can rarely say about a filmmaker whose first feature film was released in 1998. Generally speaking, Aranofsky’s movies explore the self-destructive side of humanity, how people single-mindedly pursue something that will destroy them. How our obsessions are the source of our own destruction or death. Pi was Aranofsky’s initial look at the human condition, where the hero’s intense focus on creating a mathematical formula nearly killed him. Subsequent movies explored similarly fatal pursuits. The pursuit of the high (Requiem of a Dream). Scientific discovery (The Fountain). Reclaiming professional glory (The Wrestler). Overcoming physical and mental limitations (Black Swan). Religious callings (Noah). (I don’t have a way to fit mother! in here.) Taken in this context, The Whale certainly is Aranofsky’s bailiwick.
Charlie’s path to self-destruction involves eating himself to death. His binge-eating is fueled by depression over the disastrous repercussions from a decision he made nine years ago. In the aftermath of Charlie’s decision to leave his family for a homosexual relationship with Alan, Ellie grew up to be bitter and angry and Alan committed suicide. The combination of both have made Charlie guilty to the point where the only way he can feel good about himself is by overeating. In other movies, the weapon of choice would have been alcohol, hard drugs or risky behavior. In The Whale, Charlie uses food for his fix, even though it will have fatal repercussions. He does this in spite of Liz, who implores him to go to a hospital. (She also brings him the worst possible food to eat, a puzzling thing to do given the circumstances.)
As The Whale explains, Alan committed suicide because he could not escape the guilt that was etched onto his mind by the religion that he (and Thomas) were members of. Liz reminds Charlie that what Alan did wasn’t his fault, that Alan was depressed before he left the church. Liz reminds Charlie that their love was the only thing that kept him alive, but Charlie still can’t help but feel guilty about it.
As for Ellie, Charlie left her and her mother behind, something they both probably viewed as an incredibly selfish act. Charlie, following his own credo, was just being honest with himself by admitting he was gay and who he was in love with. That didn’t stop Mary from fighting him really hard in the divorce, even going so far as prohibiting Charlie from seeing his daughter. In the years since, Mary became a pill-popping alcoholic while Ellie became fueled with rage. Again, Charlie only did what he felt was right, but feels guilty over the consequences of his actions. Probably Ellie and Mary feel that Charlie should have denied his feelings and stayed with them out of responsibility. However, that would likely have resulted in a home where the parents can’t stand each other but stay together “for the children”. (I don’t want to speak for others, but from personal experience this was a disaster.)
Some may watch The Whale and believe that it wants to punish Charlie for 1) being gay and 2) choosing to live his life according to who he actually is. From my perspective, Charlie is a person who believes that their choices are the reason why something bad happens in their life. People are much too quick to associate their choices and actions with negative outcomes, even when the connection between the two are purely coincidence. Even though Charlie is an intelligent and sensitive man, he feels guilty because he believes that he is the cause of other people’s misery. That guilt makes him depressed, which leads to his binge-eating.
As mentioned above, Alan’s own sister believes that he would have committed suicide much sooner if it weren’t for Charlie. And I believe that Charlie and Mary would have eventually gotten divorced anyway for other reasons. The tragedy in The Whale isn’t that Alan died, or that Mary and Ellie’s lives have been worse since Charlie left. It’s that Charlie believes that he is solely responsible for both of those outcomes. From the audience’s perspective, it’s easy to reject this notion. However, tragedy has a way of coloring a person’s perspective in ways that don’t make logical sense.
The other tragic decision Charlie makes is in the belief that he can make things right by Ellie by giving her $125,000. He believes that this will help her get a good start in life after she graduates. Money definitely helps, but Charlie fails to see that what Ellie really needs in her life is a father. Money can always be earned. What can’t be replaced is family.
In the movie’s last scene, when Charlie walks over to Ellie, he achieves the literal and figurative transcendence he’s been aching for. He’s finally able to connect with his daughter at an emotionally honest level. He sees that she’s a good person, and believes that she will live a good life. That may be true, but wouldn’t Ellie be better off if her father was alive and able to guide her through life? Charlie is another one of Aranofsky’s tragic heroes who finally obtains what they’ve been searching for, only to die before being able to reap the rewards of their struggle. Human life is ultimately tragic, but as Aranofsky sees it, the all-consuming pursuit of folly lends it a touch of grandeur.
Brendan Fraser has always had an inviting, goofy charm. Perhaps that’s why he wound up in so many movies that were basically live-action cartoons: The Mummy, George of the Jungle, Encino Man, Dudley Do-Right, Monkeybone, etc. In those movies, he’s a handsome, lovable, friendly, easy-going dude. However, every now and then he would take on a dramatic role and I would think, where has this guy been? As Crash, The Quiet American or Gods and Monsters showed, Fraser can play intelligent, sensitive, and even menacing characters. FX’s Trust finally gave him a character that let him do everything he could do in one role, and his performance was a knockout. He’s equally great in The Whale, a role that requires him to bring an incredibly wounded character to life. It’s such a vulnerable performance, one that I would never have expected from him in a million years. I’m very intrigued as to what he will do next. He’s raised the bar so high for himself, I hope he doesn’t feel compelled to top it.
Between The Whale and The Menu, Hong Chau has delivered two incredible supporting performances this year. She’s a sharp actress, able to convey intelligence and strength with just a single glance. I’m still confused by Liz’s conflicting motivations, but that is more to do with how her character is written and not how Chau portrays her. Regardless, she’s the rare actor that from the moment she appears on screen, you try to figure out what she is thinking, what is she going to do next. Hopefully, a leading role is in her future.