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Review: The Whale

Updated: Jan 29, 2023

[The following review contains MAJOR SPOILERS; YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!]

Like we discussed yesterday, I really want you all to focus on topic sentences more. Too many of you are rushing into examples in your body paragraphs… I know these rules can feel constraining. But remember, the point of this course is to learn how to write clearly and persuasively. That’s how you can effectively communicate your ideas.

This monologue—delivered by protagonist Charlie to a group of bored, indifferent students in his online English class—is an ironic introduction to The Whale’s central themes, considering the fundamental disconnect between the content of Samuel D. Hunter’s script (adapted from his own stage play) and the substance of the finished product delivered by Darren Aronofsky. In theory, it is a film about celebrating those tiny embers of beauty that faintly illuminate an otherwise arbitrarily cruel world; it wants the audience to rebuke the characters that mock and belittle Charlie for his weight, that reel in disgust at the very sight of him. In practice, however, it approaches its hero’s obesity as a grotesque spectacle, from its opening scene—which features Charlie suffering a near fatal heart attack while masturbating to gay porn—to its extended binge-eating montage, which is shot, edited, and scored like a particularly gory murder in a slasher flick.

The fact that Brendan Fraser manages to imbue such flawed, exploitative material with genuine humanity and emotional honesty is a testament to his immense talent as an actor; he embraces the contradictions that lend Charlie complexity and nuance. Despite his tenacious optimism—his stubborn insistence that people are inherently “wonderful” and “amazing,” even when he’s repeatedly confronted with evidence to the contrary—Charlie is plagued by self-loathing, internalizing the anger and resentment that his friends and loved ones subconsciously project onto him. Indeed, because he blames himself for his misfortunes and the “inconvenience” that they cause for others, his most frequent line of dialogue is, “I’m sorry”—and Fraser makes every apology resonate with devastating authenticity.

Fraser’s performance doesn’t quite salvage the entire movie, but it certainly elevates it to a significant degree. Ultimately, The Whale works best when analyzed from a less literalist perspective; beneath its antiquated, insensitive, and appallingly problematic surface-level depiction of physical disability lurks a thoroughly compelling meditation on compassion, redemption, and reconciliation.

If only its intentions and ambitions weren’t in such direct conflict with its execution.

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