Content warning: This piece contains spoilers for “The Whale.”
I’ve been intensely anticipating “The Whale” since its film festival run in early 2022. I no longer know what to make of reports of six-minute standing ovations — besides questioning if there is anything on Earth that could move me to clap for multiple minutes. Standing ovations aside, “The Whale” has been divisive among audiences and critics alike, primarily because of its depiction of its obese protagonist, Charlie (Brendan Fraser, “The Mummy”). Charlie is many things and is not defined by his weight: He is an absent father attempting to reconnect with his daughter, a gay man separated from his wife, an English professor who teaches an online course with his camera off as well as a man processing grief. He is a friend, an optimist and a person seeking honesty from those around him. But we must return to the fact that he is obese, and not just obese, but dying from related complications.
Charlie’s health issues are the film’s emotional backdrop. In the first minutes, Charlie experiences a heart attack. Charlie’s declining health is no secret, as he refuses to go to the hospital (he doesn’t have health insurance) and is told by his friend and nurse, Liz (Hong Chau, “Downsizing”), that he is likely to die by the week’s end. Charlie readily accepts this death sentence, which drives his actions for the rest of the film, namely his desire to reconnect with his troubled and cruel daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink, “Stranger Things”). Their relationship is strained, as Charlie has had limited contact with her since he separated from her mother when she was a young girl, and Ellie openly resents him for it. But as a dying man hoping to rectify his sins, he agrees to pay her all the money he has, in exchange for her spending time with him and writing for him — anything at all, so long as it’s honest. During these sessions, Charlie gracefully turns the other cheek to all of Ellie’s rude comments, returning every attack on his character and body with a compliment, every critique of his daughter from others with utmost faith that she is a good person.
It is worth noting that Charlie’s weight and health situation are not typical for the average fat person. Charlie is severely obese, a vaguely defined group of people with a BMI of over 40, with 9.2% of Americans falling into it — of whom even fewer are Charlie’s size. Charlie is not your average fat person, but the film still plays upon society’s fatphobia in its depiction of his life, and this prejudice does extend to anyone considered fat (a subjective, unscientific value). Fatphobia, as defined by Virgie Tovar, host of the podcast The Rebel Eaters Club, is “a form of bigotry and a form of discrimination that says that people of higher weight are inferior physically, intellectually, morally and health-wise.” After Charlie’s death sentence, we see him eating fried chicken while monstrous, foreboding music plays in the background. The disgust meant to be evoked is by no means subtle and plays upon fatphobia to elicit an emotional response from the audience. This is a dangerous game — one where fat people lose.
Fatphobia assumes that an inability to control one’s weight (which can happen for a variety of reasons) implies low moral character. It serves to justify the belief that fat people lack restraint and therefore do not deserve respect or dignity. The film attempts to pull an interesting maneuver as it simultaneously depicts Charlie as disgusting — using sound design elements and depicting his room littered with trash and junk food wrappers — while also making Charlie an endlessly forgiving, kind person. It attempts to turn the societal admonishment of fat people on its head by showing an extreme case of society’s worst fears in regard to fat people, while making him a saint. Charlie’s saint-like behavior in the face of Ellie’s cruelty culminates in the revelation that the reason Charlie refuses to go to the hospital or purchase health care is because he is saving all the money in his bank account for Ellie. Though he has been absent as a father, he believes that this money is the one thing he can contribute, martyring himself for the sake of his child’s future. The film’s ultimate message lies in this sacrifice, communicating that despite the unromantic depictions of Charlie’s life, there is abundant beauty in the compassion in his heart.
But what good is a martyr?
The film’s greatest potential is its discussion of morality, but therein lies its ultimate failure. It’s a worthy message to communicate the triumph of “everyone has the capacity to be good.” But the fact that Charlie must convey this message and be elevated to essentially sainthood for the audience to feel empathy for him and question their fatphobia misses the point entirely. It implies a conditional love and empathy for fat people. Do we only love fat people when they are optimistic and perfectly kind? What if Charlie was any less forgiving or compassionate? Would audiences be justified in their initial disgust?
In her book “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” film critic Pauline Kael considers a similar phenomenon in a conversation with Sidney Buchman, screenwriter for the 1961 film “The Mark.” It portrays a mentally ill man trying to rebuild his life after serving time in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. It is based on a true story with one major distinction: In real life, the man did commit the crime. Kael asks, “But what sort of compassion is necessary when they know the man is innocent of any wrongdoing?” Buchman responds, “If I told the truth, I wouldn’t have any movie, I couldn’t get people to feel compassion for him.”
In a damning conclusion, Kael says, “I didn’t want to tell him that that was almost the definition of an artist’s task.”
Kael criticizes a version of compassion that only runs skin deep. It’s a version that says, “I accept marginalized groups only when they act precisely the way I think they should.” It is this lazy compassion that “The Whale” elicits. The film may have a few shining lights, including Fraser’s performance — he easily suits the role of a down-on-his-luck man we root for — and exploring nuanced approaches to morality in its subplot. Ultimately, these factors do not save the film, and it’s time we raise our standards for discussions regarding morality and empathy for oppressed groups. We need films that evoke empathy without prerequisites.
Managing Arts Editor Sarah Rahman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.