The Whale A Sweaty Look at a Man with Big Problems (4*)

The Whale pulls heartstrings as you navigate a week with a morbidly obese man. The movie explores themes of addiction, relationships, literature, and spirituality with an unexpectedly good performance from Brendan Fraser. (4*)
The Whale

The Whale – Snapshot

The Whale, although not a perfect movie, pulls heartstrings as you navigate a week with a morbidly obese man who seeks to reestablish a relationship with his long-estranged daughter.  Exploring themes of addiction, relationships, literature, and spirituality, the movie is much better than the critics think.  Yes you have a morbid fascination with this man, but, thanks largely to Brendan Fraser’s performance, you also get closer to his heart and soul.  (4*)

Where to Watch:

Rent: Multiple Sources ($4-6) or wherever you get your disks

The Whale – The Oscar Buzz

Oscar Nominations:

Leading Actor (Brendan Fraser) WINNER

Supporting Actress (Hong Chau)

Makeup & Hairstyling (Morot/Chin/Bradley-Sherron) WINNER

The Whale brought Brendan Fraser an Oscar for his unexpected performance as Charlie, aka The Whale.  This was Fraser’s first Oscar nomination and his heartfelt performance beat out equally amazing turns from Austin Butler as Elvis and Collin Farrell as an Irishman who suddenly has problems with his best friend.  Fraser isn’t exactly a famous actor given that his main previous credits were leading roles in The Mummy franchise and as George of the Jungle.  Still, his performance in The Whale is, quite frankly, unusually nuanced and sensitive, especially in how he uses his eyes and face.  I don’t know if he deserved the Oscar, but he did deserve a nomination.

Hong Chau plays Liz, Charlie’s best friend and home caretaker who happens to be a nurse and monitors his deteriorating condition.  More than that, she brings an understanding of Charlie that illustrates the difficult position people in these kinds of relationships have, bridging the gap between enabler and friend.  Her performance was good, but I also liked that of Sadie Sink who, as a teenager herself, plays Charlie’s teenage-daughter in a very convincing performance.  I predict we will see her again.

Fraser’s portrayal wouldn’t have been possible without the winning work of the Makeup & Hairstyling team who not only developed a convincing 300-plus-pound fat suit – bringing him close to a full 600 pounds – but also manages to portray his physical descent over the week of the movie.  Their Oscar was well deserved even over outstanding makeup efforts in Elvis and All Quiet on the Western Front. 

Although the movie received only three nominations, two of them were in the Acting categories and, by winning two of its nominations, it establishes itself as a major Oscar player.  It comes in 8th in my Oscar Quality Index, out of 25 general interest nominees.

The Whale – The Movie’s Family Tree

The Following Movies Share Talent with This One 

(and if you like these films, you might like this one):

Black Swan (10) : Director (Aronofsky); Cinematography (Libatique); Editing (Weisblum); Makeup (Chin)

Mother! (17): Director (Aronofsky); Cinematography (Libatique); Editing (Weisblum); Costumes (Glicker)

Tick,tick…BOOM! (21): Editor (Weisblum); Makeup (Chin)

Vice (18), The Lighthouse (19), United States vs Billie Holiday (21): Makeup (Morot-fat suit prosthetics)

The Whale shares most of its genes from prior Aronofsky movies, Black Swan and, perhaps most relevant, Mother!.  Aronofsky tends to paint psychological issues in a cramped setting that, more or less successfully, expand to broader social and cultural issues.  People tend to either love or hate his movies and so your reaction to The Whale is likely to be similar to your feelings about Aronofsky’s other two works.

A huge component of The Whale’s emotional impact comes from the visual impact of Charlie’s six-hundred pound bulk.  Brendan Fraser doesn’t have anywhere near that mass, so an amazingly accurate fat-suit was built under the direction of Adrien Morot and his credits on those three other films are somewhat relevant, although none of them are as huge an effort as is his work here.  The suit itself weighed 300 pounds and Fraser had to maneuver in that thing.  It took 6 hours to apply the prosthetics and required an internal cooling system to keep Fraser from burning up.  Although I don’t have experience with a 600 pound man, one of my sisters was once around 450 pounds and all I can say is the portrayal was realistic.

The Whale – What Others Think

Like Top Gun: Maverick, The Whale was loved by the viewing public and pretty much disliked by the critics.  While Maverick was a popcorn movie, full of excitement, beautiful people, and tense action scenes, the appeal of The Whale  is on a much more intense emotional level, leaving viewers with elevated feelings that are very different from what Maverick delivers.  Still, The Whale ranks fifth in my viewer rating scale of all 25 general interest films, behind both the Maverick and Avatar movies (and two other, smaller-audience movies).  But fifth is a very good showing for a film reportedly made on only a $10 million-dollar budget.

This is a classic case where critical opinion diverges sharply from audience reaction and the reasoning exposes, perhaps, the limitations of movie critics.  Overall critics pretty consistently ranked this movie low on our list, placing it 21st out of 25 general interest movies.  I read several reviews and, generally, they argued it was poorly written. Brian Tallerico (Roger Ebert) said “Charlie is constantly preaching honesty and authenticity to his students, but I find very little of either in Samuel D. Hunter’s play or screenplay adaptation of it…(he) is so intent on pushing the viewer’s emotions that the characters start to become pawns in a game.  Don’t be fooled into thinking this film cares about people like Charlie beyond what they can do to activate your tear ducts.”  Christy Lemire (also Roger Ebert) said that “In working from Samuel D. Hunter’s script…Aronofsky doesn’t appear to be as interested in understanding these impulses and indulgences as much as pointing and staring at them.”  James Berardinelli (ReelViews) opines that Charlie “recognizes that he needs redemption but that doesn’t diminish his selfishness.  Those characteristics should make for a fascinating movie but the writing isn’t good enough.”  And, to sum it all up, A. O. Scott (New York Times) says that the movie “is swamped by its grand and vague ambitions.  It’s overwrought and also strangely insubstantial.”

“Insubstantial”?  Really.  If it is so “insubstantial” than why do audiences react so positively to this movie?  The discrepancy between critics and audiences is somewhat easy to explain in a popcorn movie, like Maverick, but when it comes to The Whale, I think you have ask some serious questions.  Is the viewing public just, somehow, stupid and doesn’t know what’s “good”?  Or have critics managed to create their own elevated, rarefied, and oxygen-free environment where they simply don’t understand what real people find stimulating?  And, ultimately, what defines a “successful” movie?  

I once said that the purpose of art is to stimulate emotion and thought and create an enduring change in the viewer’s mindset.  So with a movie like Top Gun: Maverick I get the criticism – it is a lot of fun and the impact is intense.  But how much do you take away with you two days later?  In The Whale that is not what’s going on.  In this film you are confronted with very difficult images that force you to deal with your feelings towards addiction, spirituality, death, estrangement, and love.  Yes, it is a huge set of topics, but they aren’t trivial.  And, while I am not enthralled with the ending (I think it should have ended with a big thud), I couldn’t suppress my reaction to all of those topics, none of which are trivialized in the film.  

Is it, perhaps, the case that most critics just aren’t living the same life as the rest of us?  And so, while their understanding of film mechanics is near perfect, their understanding of what makes a movie click with viewers isn’t.  I have felt the issues of obesity, addiction, child estrangement, and being something of a hermit and so I’m more inclined to give this film a break.  Yes, the script may not be the best that it could be, but, written by a gay guy who grew up in Idaho and taught English classes, it does more than most people could with these topics.  And add the unexpectedly emotional performance by Fraser and his supporting cast, this is a movie that deserves more than 21st place!  Critics – wake up and join the real world!

The Whale – Special Mention

Morbid Obesity – The Whale  is, itself, a reference to Charlie’s huge size.  At 600 pounds, he is definitely off-the-scale and would be classified as Morbidly Obese by any measure.  According to Princeton Health, morbid obesity affects 7% of women and 5% of men (about 15 million people) in the US and poses greatly higher risks for high blood pressure, diabetes, arthritis, sleep apnea, cancers, gallbladder disease, and premature death.  The failure rate for non-surgical treatments approaches 100%, meaning that about the only thing that works, and it doesn’t always, is surgery to change the person’s digestive system – diets, behavioral therapy, and exercise programs (the standard treatments) rarely work.

Obesity is measured using  the Body Mass Index (BMI) which is determined by taking your weight (in kilograms) divided by the square of the height (in meters).  (There are plenty of BMI calculators on the internet so you can get your number quickly). Using that ratio a value of 40 or above classifies you as morbidly obese, 30-39 is obese, 25-30 as overweight, 18-25 as normal, and under 18 as underweight.  Using those numbers it is estimated that more than 36% of the US population is obese, the 12th most obese country behind only some pacific island nations.  The US is the worst, by far, of any “western” country.  

However, the BMI measure has been criticized because it doesn’t take into consideration things like bone density and size, nor the distribution of soft tissue between fat and muscle.  Some professional athletes would come in with an obese BMI number.  So even the BMI scale isn’t a perfect indicator of health.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, the major determinants of obesity are food intake, physical activity, and sleep patterns.  But they do recognize that the effects of genetics, illnesses, medications and “social determinants” can alter how the major factors work.  Psychology Today says that studies show a positive correlation between obesity and depression, eating disorders, anxiety, and substance abuse.  So obesity isn’t just a physical state, it is also a mental and emotional one.

Once a person becomes obese, several psychological factors help maintain the pattern including avoiding emotions, low self-worth, binge eating, self-criticism, and negative beliefs (Weight Matters).  In other words, once a person becomes obese it is pretty normal to avoid changing it.  I think The Whale shows Charlie cycling through all of those psychological states, so it isn’t any wonder that he can’t change.

Child-Parent Estrangement: One of the critical factors affecting Charlie’s psychological state is the fact that he is estranged from his daughter.  I don’t want to get into the details of how that happens, because that is part of the story’s complexity.  But he and his wife divorced when his daughter is only about eight and he hasn’t been allowed to see her for the last decade or so. In my opinion the best parts of The Whale revolve around him trying to reestablish a connection with his daughter.

So, of course, I had to research that a bit too!  There aren’t too many studies out there, so it is difficult to know how serious of a problem this is.  In a fairly recent Ohio State University study, 6% of adult children have reported a period of estrangement with their mothers, but 26% with their fathers.  Although most estrangements do end after some period of time, 31% of those in this study said that their father-estrangement never did end.

I couldn’t find any studies that looked at the fathers affected by these estrangements, but my personal experience can testify that estrangement from your daughter, regardless of the reasons, can have have serious emotional side effects including guilt and remorse, self-criticism, and bitterness (negative beliefs).  In other words, it can become a perfect set of contributory factors to obesity.

The Whale – Michael’s Moments

The Whale is far from a perfect movie.  I was especially disenchanted with the ending, as I believe it easily plays into a religious theme that I’m very uncomfortable with.  But up until some of those final moments, the movie tugs at your heart strings with both tenderness and blatant obsession.  

Might there possibly be some explanations for my opinion?  Although I can’t quite see me ever walking in Charlie’s shoes, there are some very serious parallels.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first.  I am not “morbidly obese”, but my calculated BMI is 29.6, which puts me very close to that category.  It hasn’t changed a whole lot in over a decade, so I’m not sure I will ever cross that arbitrary line, but who knows…it could happen.  I am also big-boned and, according to my PCP, in very good health for a 71 year-old man.  Still, I can’t help but feel a kindred spirit to Charlie as I, too, find it difficult to walk around, especially up and down stairs, which I do several times a day.

So I also get Charlie’s frustrations with health maintenance suggestions and resistance to changing his situation.  My wife (Joan, bless her heart) is my Liz and she tries her best to get me out for walks, and I do that with her when I can.

There is the hermit-thing.  As you will see in the movie, Charlie never leaves his apartment – for one thing it is just too difficult.  For another, there is no particular reason for him to do so.  I get that – it is a lot of work to go out into the world and what, exactly is the added value?  I get plenty of satisfaction from my movies, cooking fabulous meals and the home and yard work I can do.  What else is needed?

There is the addiction-thing.  I don’t have the eating problem that Charlie does – I have never come close to eating two pizzas the way he does.  But I have a sister who has done that.  My addictions involve more my fondness for wine and controlling that is, indeed, a challenge.

Finally, there is the daughter estrangement.  My story is, in many ways, much worse than Charlie’s and for lots of reasons, I’m not going to go into the details.  Let me just say that I haven’t seen one of my daughters in decades.  She even has two children whom I have never met.  My younger daughter, the problem child, has her own addiction and delinquency problems, even at the age of 31. She came out to live with me for a while recently and we were working to rebuild her life.  Then she got pregnant, went back to using drugs, stole money from us, and to protect ourselves, I had to kick her out of the house.  So after a year of a blossoming relationship, things deteriorated badly and I haven’t seen her for over a year now.  So can estrangement from your children cause serious personal issues? – you bet!

The Whale strikes home for me in multiple ways.  And Charlie’s story achieves its metaphorical punch in the form of an essay that, as you will see, he reads or has read to him several times in the course of the movie.  Follow the uses of that essay all the way through the film, because it is there that the movie ties together all of its themes.  It is an essay, ostensibly about the novel Moby Dick.  Repeatedly we hear that Ishmael spends so much time talking about whales because “He is just trying to save us from his own sad story.” (4*)

The Whale
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