“The Whale” plays at the M.V. Film Center on Friday, Feb. 3. It is the fictional story about the life of a morbidly obese man named Charlie, played by Brendan Fraser. More than that, the film signifies the story of how each of our inadequacies can betray us.
Fraser plays Charlie in a fat suit, rather than the film using an actual obese actor. The film’s title, “The Whale,” references “Moby-Dick,” Charlie’s favorite novel. The allusion is significant. Directed by Darren Aronofsky, the film earned Oscar nominations for Fraser for best actor; Hong Chau for best supporting actress; and best achievement for make-up and hairstyling. The film was written by Samuel D. Miller, from his stage play of the same name, and “The Whale” received a six-minute standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival.
This film is set entirely in one room of Charlie’s apartment, not that unusual considering films like Hitchcock’s “Rope” and “Rear Window.” As repulsively fat as Charlie may be, he is a talented writer and teacher, an intelligent man. He teaches a college writing course online, but leaves his image blank so his students cannot see him.
Somewhat surprisingly, Charlie has a number of friends and acquaintances. The viewer first meets Liz, a nurse played by Hong Chau, who is concerned about the health of her friend, and Ellie (played by Sadie Sink), his hostile 17-year-old daughter. When Liz visits, she takes Charlie’s blood pressure, which is dangerously high, and an indication of his congestive heart failure. When Ellie shows up, the viewer learns that Charlie fell in love with Liz’s older brother Alan and divorced her mother when Ellie was 8 years old. It’s possible that Charlie’s obesity has been motivated by heartbreak over his lover’s suicide. Charlie tries to befriend his angry daughter, and offers to pay for her visits to keep her visiting and helping her write her school essays.
The viewer watches Charlie struggle to move around his apartment in a walker, and later in a wheelchair that Liz has brought him, along with a questionable supply of food. He watches TV, and obsessively eats pizza, subs, and chocolate bars. A recluse, he orders pizza and leaves money for Dan the delivery man (Sathya Sridharan) in the mailbox, so he won’t be seen — until he is.
A missionary named Thomas (Ty Simpkins) from the New Life Church arrives in hopes of saving Charlie through religion, but Charlie is not interested. After dosing her father with tranquilizers to put him to sleep, Ellie badgers Thomas into confessing that he has been addicted to marijuana and has run away from home. In the meantime, Charlie’s ex-wife Mary (Samantha Morton) visits, and the viewer learns about his painful past. Thanks to Ellie’s devious manipulations, Thomas is welcomed back home by his parents. When Charlie learns he’s being replaced as a teacher, he gives a heartfelt goodbye to his students and shows them how he actually looks through the computer image he previously left blank. Then he throws his computer against a wall.
This poignant story is well told, and it carries the insight that even if we are not obese like Charlie, we are confronted by other life inadequacies.
Information and tickets for “The Whale” are available at mvfilmsociety.com.