No one wants to live like Charlie in “The Whale.” No one who genuinely cares about their neighbors should want anybody to live like its character Charlie, an obese English professor who’s resigned himself to the dark four corners of his apartment as an early casket.
Charlie, played by Brendan Fraser in a performance that earned him a Critics Choice Award, is an extreme depiction of where the nation is headed without a dramatic change in course. The film opens with Charlie cloaked in the blank black box of despair from a disabled webcam while he instructs students enrolled in an online college course. The second scene moves to Charlie masturbating to gay porn which leads him to suffer a cardiac event. In other words, the main character is introduced as a recluse drowning himself in the cheap dopamine hits made available to him on a filthy couch where his walker provides his only liberation, and a labored one at that.
Charlie is only saved by the sudden appearance of a missionary who reads him a scene from “Moby Dick.”
In this era, where Hollywood has sought to capitalize on the pro-fat, “body positivity” movement, “The Whale” is breathtakingly contrarian. Based on an off-Broadway play, the movie is a masterpiece of an illustration of misery and is the most effective major motion picture to depict the horrors of severe obesity on screen since 1993’s “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.”
After the death of his partner who committed suicide by jumping off a bridge, Charlie chose death by diet, hooked on gluttony to cope with the depression. The cascade of carbs and sugar wrapped up in pizza, chicken wings, and candy bars, however, only offered the main character temporary relief while feeding a lifestyle that would make anybody depressed.
Depicting raw truths about severe obesity on screen has earned the film harsh criticism from those who often play down the consequences of extreme excess weight and its risks.
“Some of the film’s critics believe it perpetuates tired tropes of fat people as suffering, chronically depressed and binge eating,” Time Magazine reported last week.
The paper went on to highlight since-deleted tweets from Aubrey Gordon, a writer and podcaster, who criticized the film as fatphobic.
“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,” she wrote.
In December, New York Times writer Roxane Gay seemed to agree, with a column titled, “The Cruel Spectacle of ‘The Whale.'”
“Most audiences will see the spectacle of a 600-pound man unwilling to care for himself, grieving the loss of his partner who died by suicide, eager to die himself and using food as the means to that end,” Gay wrote. “The disdain the filmmakers seem to have for their protagonist is constant, inescapable. It’s infuriating.”
What’s truly infuriating, however, is the normalization of Charlie’s lifestyle in a country where nearly half the population is forecast to be obese by the end of the decade. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 42 percent of Americans are already at that point.
One doesn’t have to disdain fat people to hold disdain for fat. Even in “The Whale,” Charlie’s death is heartbreaking to watch, and not an eye in the east Denver movie theater was dry on Monday evening after the film.
The hit TLC reality series “My 600-lb Life” just began airing its 11th season this month. In all 10 seasons streaming, not a single person featured on the show has encouraged viewers to aspire to his or her obese size, for obvious reasons. “The Whale” offers a dramatic depiction of what life looks like at 600 pounds, but the facts of obesity are just as cruel as fiction.