The Whale – A Movie Review


When I first heard about The Whale on Tik Tok, it seemed immediately problematic. The short clip I saw on my For You page featured the main character, a morbidly obese man, shoveling candy bars into his mouth by the fistful as he googles “congestive heart failure”. The video itself, constantly zeroing in on his flabs of flesh and beads of sweat, paired with the title of “The Whale”, made this movie seem obviously fatphobic. But after scrolling the comment section, I was shocked to see the overwhelming praise this movie received. Is a movie whose intentions seem so blatantly obvious possibly be redeemable? I thought I’d watch it myself. And after an intensive 2 hours, I’ve concluded my prejudgment of The Whale was correct – sort of. 

Charlie is a 600 pound recluse who has been eating himself to death after enduring a tragedy. He works as an online college professor who teaches his students about the English language behind a black screen, his camera disabled. The movie follows the last week of Charlie’s life as he tries to reconnect with his estranged teenage daughter, whom he left when she was a child to be with a man. The entire movie takes place within Charlie’s cluttered apartment in rural Idaho and features a number of visitors including his best friend/caretaker Liz (Hong Chau), a young missionary boy who thinks it’s his destiny to “save” Charlie (Ty Simpkins), and his resentful daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink) who visits only to berate him and demand compensation. 

The headline of this film is obviously Charlie’s mammoth size. Brendan Fraser, who plays Charlie, adorns 300-pound sagging prosthetics which unforgivingly display his bloated, swollen body. We’re supposed to gawk at his grotesqueness and wallow in his decay as he knocks over tables, moans from the physical demand of reaching for things, and nearly chokes to death on a meatball sub. When Charlie gets over excited, which literally threatens his life, he recites from his most prized possession, an essay on Moby Dick to calm him down. The essay in part gives the movie its title and holds more significance later on, but it also exists to further the point that Charlie is a pitiable, “disgusting” (yes that’s a direct quote) human being, comparative to a “poor big animal”. And if the message isn’t obvious enough, Charlie also recites the line “this book made me think about my own life”, in reference to the whale. While the intent of the film might have been to tell the story of a complex, intelligent man living with egregious psychological and physical constraints, in reality, it is a very surface level display of misery and shame. 

Beyond the prevailing narrative of Charlie’s demise, the movie feigns complexity with many untethered themes that make out for a really muddy thesis. One of the movie’s major motifs is radical honesty, which I find ironic due to its misrepresentation of Charlie’s motives. The greatest example of this is how Charlie is believed to be refusing medical care due to lack of money, but it’s revealed later on in the movie that Charlie has almost 100 grand of savings for his daughter Ellie, which he refuses to use any of for himself. The movie assumes this is due to altruism, hoping to give this money to his daughter as some sort of act of redemption, and also due to Charlie’s own suicidal ideations. But in reality, discrimination against obese people, especially in the medical community, completely proves his motive as a projection from the writers, and not grounded in reality. If the movie tried to have any insight towards people with obesity, they’d find significant studies that show obese people don’t turn away medical treatment due to self-loathing or savior complexes – it’s because of cruelty and dismissal from medical professionals. For example, in a study conducted by the American Medical Association, while two-thirds of people over 20 are considered overweight,  24% of nurses reported feeling “repulsed” by patients that are obese. Beyond just this, the movie can’t seem to make up its mind about the portrayal of Charlie. Charlie’s character is portrayed as intelligent, caring, and optimistic despite the tragic circumstances of his life. He cares very deeply about Ellie, despite her violent and vocal hatred towards him, and he needs to know that she has someone there for her. So it seems, to me, to be counterintuitive to credit his reclusiveness to desire to die. 

There are a few aspects of this movie that are almost redeeming, the greatest being Brendan Fraser’s performance. Fraser brings humanity to Charlie so that the movie does not spare him. In juxtaposition with his exterior, Fraser’s performance is gentle, bringing innocence and dimension to the role. He brings empathy to a character that is designed to be caricaturistic and dehumanizing. I even admittedly shed a few tears watching his last exchange with Ellie, where he tearfully tells her how sorry he is for leaving her and that she is a good person despite her hatred of the world and everyone in it. In addition to Fraser’s performance, I do think the movie achieved some cinematic merit. When the camera wasn’t honed in on depicting Charlie as a nauseating fleshy beast, the dim lighting and disarray of Charlie’s apartment, which was the setting of the entire movie, made me impressively claustrophobic. 

Lastly, the movie almost has profoundness if you conceive that all the characters are “The Whale” in their own right, fighting their own fatal flaws like addiction, religious trauma, and abandonment. However, I don’t find this potential interpretation to be “that deep”, and I think the movie is closer to trauma fetishization than “emotional honesty” as it claims to be. 

All in all, this movie made me absolutely miserable. After 2 hours of ogling at Charlie’s pathetic life, the greatest message this movie seemed to send its audience was a sense of superiority over Charlie. The best thing The Whale can be credited with accomplishing is re-igniting a conversation about the inherently dehumanizing nature of fat suits in Hollywood as problematic exploitations of fat people. My recommendation would be for this film to be watched by fans of Brendan Fraser, or people who want to have an informed conversation about the film, understanding it’s often upsetting and triggering. Other than that, I stick with my original diagnosis; this movie is somehow simultaneously over-elaborate and surface level, and very obviously fatphobic.

Photo by Thomas Lipke on Unsplash