Brendan Fraser had fallen off the map when he was invited by Darren Aronofsky to play Charlie in The Whale. It’s a strange comeback role for an actor who used to be an action hero, as Charlie is the very definition of inertia. Weighing in at approximately 270 kilos, he spends his life in a gloomy, musty first floor apartment, where he teaches an on-line writing course and binges on fast food. Last week Fraser was nominated for an Oscar for this sweaty, stationary performance. It would be an irony if he comes in ahead of Austin Butler’s pelvis-shaking Elvis – but it would be well deserved.
If you’ve ever wondered about the term, “morbidly obese”, Charlie is a textbook illustration. He is so large his legs can barely support his body. He needs a walking frame to take a few painful steps from his lounge chair to the bathroom and back again. His torso has collapsed into a wobbly mountain of flesh that makes one wonder when he last saw his feet. Charlie is not a pretty sight – he’s a freak, and aware of the fact. Predictably, this has fired the anger of ‘fat activists’ who see the film as painting a negative picture of the chronically overweight.
This takes Charlie far too literally. He doesn’t have issues with his body image – he has given up on his body altogether. He’s not unhappy because he’s fat, but fat because he’s unhappy. One suspects there are very few ‘jolly’ fat people as the cliché has it, but Charlie’s misery is on a scale to match his waistline. It dates back to the day he left his wife and infant daughter for one of his students: a young man named Alan, who had been brought up in a family of religious fundamentalists. When Alan committed suicide it left Charlie in despair, feeling that he’d lost the love of his life after cutting himself off from his only child. He withdrew into his apartment and began killing himself slowly. He’s an extreme example of what the Japanese call otaku – the misfit who stays in his room glued to the computer screen.
The film begins with Charlie having something resembling a heart attack while watching gay porn on his laptop. He’s discovered and saved by a Christian missionary named Thomas (Ty Simpkins), who hears his gasps when getting ready to knock on the front door. Charlie insists there’s no need for an ambulance, all he wants is for Thomas to read aloud from an essay on Moby Dick! This is interrupted by the arrival of Liz (Hong Chau), a nurse who has taken it upon herself to look after Charlie, even though she knows it’s only a matter of time until his heart gives up. As it transpires, Liz is the sister of Charlie’s lost lover, Alan, and the foster daugher of the head of the fundamentalist church that Thomas represents.
Knowing that his time is running out, Charlie contacts his daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink), who arrives full of venom and resentment. If there were a bushfire rating system for disturbed teens, Ellie would be in the red zone. She is frankly disgusted by Charlie and lets him know, but at this stage it’s hard to hurt his feelings.
We know, or at least think we know where this story is heading. The tension comes from the messy but carefully-plotted interaction between the lead characters – Charlie, Liz, Thomas, and Ellie. The other persistent presence is Herman Meville’s Moby Dick, the great American novel that casts a shadow over these claustrophobic encounters.
The Whale began life as a play by Samuel D. Hunter, who also wrote the screenplay. As such, it makes only limited use of the resources of the cinema, relying on plot, dialogue, and character to hold our attention. It succeeds so well that it turns these limitations into strengths. For Darren Aronofsky, the film is a back-to-basics exercise, after his previous feature, Mother! (2017), which left critics and audiences wondering if the director had just discovered magic mushrooms.
The only digitally manipulated part of The Whale is Charlie’s vast, blubbery body, as no actor – not even Christian Bale – could be expected to adjust their actual weight to match the role.
It’s no revelation that Charlie is the “whale” of the title, but he’s also Melville, and Ishmael, the narrator of the novel. No literary classic this side of the Greeks and Romans has been so mined for homosexual allusions as Moby Dick, which begins with the narrator sharing a bed in an inn with a giant Polynesian named Queequeg. Melville may have been married with children, but nowadays he is widely viewed as a queer icon.
Captain Ahab’s quest for the white whale has been subject to a broad range of interpretions – religious, historical, and psychoanalytical. Is the whale a symbol for God? For the meaning of life? For something that went missing in Ahab’s childhood? One presumes that for Charlie, the “whale” was his dream of perfect happiness that came unstuck. His response has been to become the whale, gorging himself on pizza, fried chicken and candy, satisfying his appetite while leaving his longings unappeased. No matter how much he shovels into that gargantuan belly, he still feels hollow.
Love, rather than pizza, is the answer, but it’s hard to extract any from his ferocious daughter. For Aronofsky it’s proving just as hard to touch those viewers who find it impossible to get past Charlie’s grotesque image and feeding habits. The Whale is shaping up as one of those love-it-or-hate-it films, but it will leave nobody feeling indifferent.
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Written by Samuel D. Hunter, after his own play
Starring: Brendan Fraser, Hong Chau, Ty Simpkins, Sadie Sink, Samantha Morton, Sathya Sridharan
USA, M, 117 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 4 February, 2023