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Saving the Whale
“The Whale” requires the viewer to be a voyeur to morbid obesity and a witness to a scathing critique of end-of-days religion. At the same time, it surprisingly embraces not only religious experience, but the person inside the fat suit.
Above, Brendan Fraser in his Oscar-winning role as the optimistic 600-pound Charlie.
You’ll want to cover your eyes as 600-pound Charlie tries to rise from his sofa, sweat marks spreading on his grey shirt as he struggles painfully (for him and for us), in vain. Much has been written about the prosthetics that made possible this “disgusting” creature, and those who orchestrated his physicality won the Oscar for Best Makeup and Hairstyling. Yet a focus on that creation misses the point. Brendan Fraser, who won this year’s Best Actor Oscar for his role as the on-line (but camera-off) English teacher Charlie, is so compelling that our attention increasingly is diverted from his body to the man within.
Right, Fraser with his make-up and prosthetics to be the 600-pound Charlie, for which the make-up and hairstyling artists won an Oscar.
While Charlie struggles, a knock on the door (unlocked, because how would Charlie get there to open it) brings a visitor to Charlie’s room, the young Thomas (Ty Simpkins, who made his mark as a teen actor in Marvel movies). This naïve “New Life” door-to-door missionary is the first of several people in the obese man’s life who will try to “save” him. Salvation, even of the religious variety, is a major theme of Samuel D. Hunter’s script, based on his stage play.
Left, "New Life" missionary Thomas
(Ty Simpkins) is the first visitor
to Charlie's room.
And right, Liz tells Thomas "I'm the only one who can help him. Hong Chau as Liz was
nominated for an
Oscar for her
"I’m the only one who can help him,” Thomas is told by another visitor, Liz, the sharp-tongued, no-nonsense caretaker who ministers to Charlie (Hong Chau, an experienced actress, was nominated for an Oscar for her supporting role). Both Liz and Thomas are representations of ways of saving Charlie, rather than people we care much about. Thomas represents a hyper-moralistic Christianity, and Liz practical health measures. Neither is the savior the fat man needs.
Neither Liz nor Thomas is the savior the fat man needs.
It’s Charlie’s relationship with the daughter he abandoned, Ellie (Sadie Sink, another young and experienced stage, TV and film actress), that holds potential for both of them: potential for him to be forgiven and for the angry young teen to find her way in life.
The daughter Charlie abandoned
at age 8, Ellie (Sadie Sink)
is full of vitriol, yet doesn't seem
to know if she wants in
or out of his life 9 years later.
Hunter’s script is replete with plot devices that are hallmarks of melodrama.
Hunter’s script is replete with plot devices that are hallmarks of melodrama, and of the stage. Charlie won’t go to the hospital because he doesn’t have health insurance and is saving his money for Ellie. As a result, he’s bound to his home, his weight a confinement in itself. All the supporting characters must come to him, must enter his apartment, the only significant space in the film. Everyone has a complex back story, another source of melodrama, and in stark contrast to films such as the recent “Ghost Tropic,” in which no one exists beyond the present. Symbols abound: the washing of feet, the blood of Christ (?), ascension into light and, of course, “Moby Dick.”
Like Herman Melville’s Ahab, Charlie needs to get beyond the “whale” of his enormous body. “Am I disgusting?” he asks repeatedly, and “I’m sorry” is his constant refrain, his weight more a symptom than a cause of his distress. Rather, he must acknowledge the “mistakes I’ve made,” primarily his abandonment of Ellie at age 8 and of her mother Mary (the often awards-nominated Samantha Morton). As ex-wife Mary puts it, “you left me for a MAN,” a complaint that seems somehow dated, though it may have resonance in 2016 Idaho, where the film is set. Sink plays Ellie with about as much vitriol as one could imagine or stomach, even in a sullen teen. And Mary is one of too many visitors to the home, although she usefully introduces us to the not-quite-believable optimism of her former husband.
Director Darren Aronofsky, whose creative credits include 2010’s “Black Swan” and 2017’s “Mother,” has worked from a rather ordinary script that produces predictable, melodramatic tears. He also elicited superb acting from Fraser, whose performance is a thing of beauty, even if Charlie isn’t.
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Brendan Fraser, Sadie Sink, Hong Chau, Ty Simpkins, Samantha Morton
Country: United States
Runtime: 117 minutes
Oscar Nominations: Brendan Fraser for Best Actor, 2022 (won), Hong Chau for Best Supporting Actress, Best Achievement in Makeup and Hairstyling (won)
Other Awards: 41 other wins and 113 other nominations