Typically, the two basic approaches to obesity in cinema are to regard it as tragic or comic.
In director Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale, he has somehow avoided both. And unfortunately, therein lays its fatal flaw. Here’s a movie with the unique distinction of creating in its audience an almost unremitting anxiety about how they’re supposed to respond to what’s on-screen.
The film comes with a skilled filmmaker (Requiem for A Dream, Black Swan), and its cast does what it can, particularly with Brendan Fraser’s brave, physical transformation. However, its screenplay remains uncertain, and often misplaced, constantly feeling the need to shout at its audience to get any point across.
The story, a small and intimate one, is essentially about Charlie. Played by Brendan Fraser, he’s a reclusive, morbidly overweight gay man who’s well-read. An online college English teacher, in fact, who hides behind a black Zoom screen from his students, embarrassed by his appearance and declining health.
At 600 lbs, Charlie is confined to his claustrophobic Idaho apartment, which Aronofsky rarely leaves (save for a flashback or two). Slapped down emotionally so many times in life he sinks further into his couch and food addiction setting up a cast of characters to steadily come through, dropping morsels of expository plot, or settling scores.
Take your pick. From an annoyingly earnest missionary (Ty Simpkins) trying to “save” Charlie to a long-neglected daughter (Sadie Sink) looking for inheritance money and help on her school essay, Samuel D. Hunter’s adaption from his own 2012 stage play feels just that – stagey. Moreover, there are times when the film harbours such unease with itself one wonders if Darren Aronofsky wished he had tackled a different subject altogether.
Nevertheless, similar to the mounds of prosthetics fitted over Brendan Fraser, The Whale sidesteps any real questions about body or soul, instead calling for its actors to perform through a heavy-handed plot. There’s not much else.