Mainstream critics are furious that a director would dare to portray obesity as a negative.
They’ll never come out and say that explicitly. Instead, their reviews of “The Whale” starring Brendan Fraser are full of evasive criticism, claiming director Darren Aronofsky’s passion project is a “cruel spectacle” and that it helps to “reinforce the dehumanizing ways in which many people understand fatness.”
The movie portrays Fraser as a homebound 600-pound English teacher named Charlie who is slowly eating himself to death. It’s revealed that Charlie is depressed following the death of his partner and copes with his emotions by binge eating. Like the director’s previous effort “Requiem For A Dream,” the film explores the subject matter with an uncomfortable intensity.
But while Aronofsky insists he handled the character of Charlie with compassion, that’s not enough to assuage the critics who fear some viewers will see overeating as a vice and morbid obesity as less than ideal.
Fraser wears extensive body and facial prosthetics for his role. Aronofsky, who resists the use of the term “fat suit,” explores the reality of Charlie struggling to perform simple tasks while fat in a way that’s deemed “exploitative” and “voyeuristic.” Roxane Gay of The New York Times called it “gratuitous, self-aggrandizing fiction” that was barely a step above the films of decades past that used fat suit clad actors as a punchline.
“The disdain the filmmakers seem to have for their protagonist is constant, inescapable,” Gay writes in her review. She recalled being personally offended by the subject matter considering that she too is gay and fat. For that reason, the NYT writer resents how obesity is portrayed as “the ultimate human failure, something despicable, to be avoided at all costs.”
“A movie like this will only reinforce the dehumanizing ways in which many people understand fatness,” Gay concludes. “It’s a carnival sideshow. Come look at the freak, the movie beckons.”
Some critics also took issue with the intimate depictions of Charlie binge eating. They couldn’t believe Aronofsky would dare to explore the specific actions that led to the character’s health failure and eventual death.
In one scene, Charlie is shown gorging himself on greasy pizza that’s smeared all over his face even as he flings open the refrigerator door searching for more. Another clip shows the character wolfing down a bucket of fried chicken. His clothing is described by one reviewer as “tent-like … threadbare, perpetually soaked in sweat” only highlighting “the rolls of his stomach spilling over his thighs.”
A reviewer from Buzzfeed News criticizes the binge scenes as well, writing, “the score swells while Charlie reaches for a pizza and candy bars, and we’re forced to watch him wheeze, sweat, and beg for forgiveness for his mistakes — the foremost of which, the film illustrates, is his obesity.”
They chastise Aronofsky for “treating [Charlie] like an imposing monster in his own horror film rather than a human being.”
“You can’t really make a feel-good body-horror movie,” David Sims of The Atlantic declared.
Podcaster Aubrey Gordon, who is fat, also laments the reality that “The Whale” forces audiences to face, namely that being obese can be a symptom of deeper psychological issues and that it’s statistically likely to lead to an early death.
“The number of people who describe this premise as ‘humanizing’ is so disheartening,” she shared on Twitter. “If the only way you can ‘humanize’ a very fat person is to watch them humiliated, terrified, ashamed & killed off in a stereotypically stigmatizing way, it’s time to do some serious reflecting.”
The controversy of actors wearing fat suits also came up during most reviews. While this tactic was often employed for comedic value in the past, (think “The Nutty Professor” and “Shallow Hal”), it’s since become a lot more thoughtful and intentional if it’s used at all.
Besides some mainstream actors coming out against fat suits, the Buzzfeed News writer said “the major Hollywood studio roles for fat people, or queer people, or trans people come along so rarely that it feels doubly insulting to then have actors of those communities miss out amid a drought of those roles.”
The director has addressed criticism over his selection of Fraser for the lead role rather than an obese gay actor that would match the character he created.
“Actors have been using makeup since the beginning of acting — that’s one of their tools,” Aronofsky told Yahoo News. “And the lengths we went to to portray the realism of the make-up has never been done before. One of my first calls after casting Brendan was to my makeup artist, Adrien Morot. I asked him, ‘Can we do something that’s realistic?’ Because if it’s going to look like a joke, then we shouldn’t do it.”
“People with obesity are generally written as bad guys or as punchlines,” he continued. “We wanted to create a fully worked-out character who has bad parts about him and good parts about him; Charlie is very selfish, but he’s also full of love and is seeking forgiveness. So [the controversy] makes no sense to me. Brendan Fraser is the right actor to play this role, and the film is an exercise in empathy.”
Fraser also takes the role seriously and never makes a mockery of Charlie.
“Charlie is not the person he presents,” Fraser said of the character. “He’s not the person who we so often dismiss. He’s a man who lives with obesity, but he’s also a father and he’s also a teacher. He’s someone who can bring out the best in others even when they can’t see that in themselves. Tragically, he can’t do that for himself.”
“It’s well-rounded character,” the actor insists. “The empathy that I think we all felt shooting this movie and telling Sam Hunter’s story is something that’s intensely personal to all of us.”
In subsequent conversations about the role, Fraser pointed out that his weight has fluctuated over the years and also that he has a son who’s fat. The actor believes these truths should afford him the right to take on the role of Charlie.
Aronfsky even enlisted professionals to ensure he was handling the subject matter carefully. The director hired members of the Obesity Action Coalition (OAC) to consult on the script and ensure Fraser was realistically portraying a morbidly obese person.
The organization shared in a written statement that they were “honored” to work on the film “A24 approached us with the opportunity to offer the production team and the film’s lead actor, Brendan Fraser, insight into the realities of living with severe obesity,” the statement said. “Our goal was to make sure the representation of severe obesity was realistic and respectful — not the caricature we so often see in movies or television shows.”
While “The Whale” has been slammed for portraying obesity as a less-than-desirable health condition that will lead to an early death, enough critics appreciated Fraser’s performance to score him some notable recognition.
So far, the 54-year-old actor was just nominated for a Best Actor Golden Globe and is considered a frontrunner for the Best Actor Oscar Award in 2023.