Released: 2nd February
Seen: 7th February

To be honest, the thought of seeing a film like The Whale is quite frightening to someone like me. A film about a morbidly obese gay man is something that feels a little close to home, while this reviewer might not be at the ‘morbid’ level of obesity it’s hard not to see the images of Brendan Fraser in his expertly constructed fat suit and not see a slight mirror of my own reality. Hell, the ultimate personal irony in seeing this film is that the cinema that was showing this film has chairs that are just a little too small for me to sit in comfortably. Basically, if anyone was either going to have a deep personal connection with this film or be offended by it, that’s going to be me so it’s weird to realise my main reaction is just kind of shrugging.

The Whale, based on the play of the same name, takes place entirely inside the apartment of 600-pound Charlie (Brendan Fraser). Charlie is a total recluse, having refused to leave his home for years following the death of his long-term partner, and making a living by running online English classes. The only person who he spends any time with is his friend and nurse Liz (Hong Chau) who keeps trying to convince Charlie to go to the hospital, something he refuses due to the cost because this story takes place in America which is the only place that such a reason would make sense. 

Anyway, one day Charlie’s estranged daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink) turns up to his apartment with clearly no intent to stick around until Charlie offers to help her complete an assignment and give her a large undisclosed amount of money. From there Charlie spends the rest of the show just trying to make a connection with his estranged daughter despite her repeated and intense refusals for such a connection. Throughout what might be Charlie’s last week, he not only will try to connect with Ellie but also deal with a relentless missionary, Thomas (Ty Simpkins), who thinks it’s his mission to save Charlie.

Elephant in the room time, The Whale really has a very surface-level method of addressing Charlie’s weight… as in there isn’t a single scene where some large high-fat food item isn’t in his hand. At points, they might try to address the issue of depression which is clearly the biggest factor in putting Charlie in this situation but it’s usually background information that’s barely talked about. No, instead every scene must have Charlie wolfing down a bucket of chicken, a couple of meatball subs, some candy he has hidden in a drawer, or some other random food item at all times. 

The Whale (2023) - Brandan Fraser
The Whale (2023) – Brandan Fraser

This happens to the point that when things finally go wrong and Charlie engages in a heartbreaking moment of binge eating, it barely registers because the only thing that’s changed is he’s pouring ranch dressing on the food he normally eats. The Whale wants to hammer home one thing, that Charlie is obscenely fat and it’s probably all his fault. Hell, they can’t even make him fat enough just with a fat suit, they have to actively cut the aspect ratio down to make sure that Charlie takes up as much space in the frame as possible at all times. 

It’s also not helped by the fact that basically everyone in The Whale other than Liz and Charlie are some of the cruelest characters alive. Ellie in particular is just vile, engaging in the kind of cruelty that should have you permanently cut out of someone’s life but instead we’re asked to root for her and Charlie to make a connection. Thomas is just the worst kind of evangelical, the kind who puts on a kind tone early on but inevitably slips to reveal his evil intent. Even the pizza guy is somewhat cruel, everyone is… which makes the films thesis statement that “People are amazing” feel hollow. Sorry, the people in this film are not amazing, most of them are cruel assholes who would rather point and laugh at the man clearly in need of compassion (though they are all well performed, that much must be said).

However, The Whale has one not-so-secret weapon that makes so many of its worst problems somehow work… Brendan Motherfucking Fraser. In the hands of any other actor, Charlie’s optimism about people would feel forced or phony but Brendan doesn’t have a cynical bone in his body and you truly believe he sees the good in everyone, his eyes light up with hope in the brief moments when he sees that glimmer of something inside someone. He also manages to sell the emotional aspect of the emotional eating that has clearly made Charlie what he is, Brendan’s incredibly expressive face is doing all the work to make this film work.

Were it not for Brendan’s heart just being put on full display,The Whale would absolutely not work. Its desire to try and tell a story about the good in people is admirable, just a pity it created a bunch of characters who have nothing good about them. We know there is good there because Charlie says there is and it’s impossible not to believe him, but none of the actual characters show anything good. Again, part of this could just be that the way they treat Charlie hit home for this particular reviewer, the undeniable urge to slap every single person who isn’t Charlie or Liz was a constant while the film went on, but most of it just feels like bad writing that’s been given to great actors who make it work.

The Whale is absolutely going to get an emotional reaction out of you but that’s purely because of the glorious lead performance, something that turns the material into gold through the sheer sweet purity of the actor. It’s the kind of performance that you see and immediately know it’s the one that should be taking home an Oscar when the time comes and god damn it’ll be glorious when that happens… I just really wish that the rest of the film was as truly spectacular as its lead.

One thought on “The Whale (2023) – Big Damn Deal

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