'The Whale' is more prosthetic than aesthetic : Pop Culture Happy Hour In the new Darren Aronofsky film The Whale, Brendan Fraser plays Charlie, a housebound 600-pound gay writing teacher whose health is failing. His hopes to spend his last days reconnecting with his estranged daughter (Sadie Sink) are complicated by her lingering resentment of him and his own feelings of guilt, shame and self-loathing.

'The Whale' is more prosthetic than aesthetic

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A warning - this episode contains discussion of suicide.


WELDON: In the new Darren Aronofsky film "The Whale," Brendan Fraser plays Charlie, a housebound 600-pound gay writing teacher whose health is failing. His hopes to spend his last days reconnecting with his estranged daughter are complicated by her lingering resentment of him and his own feelings of guilt, shame and self-loathing. I'm Glen Weldon, and today we're talking about "The Whale" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.


WELDON: Joining me today is comedian and co-star of the movie "Bros" and the upcoming Apple+ series "Platonic," Guy Branum. Welcome to the show, Guy.

GUY BRANUM: Good to be back, Glen, good to be here with you - always a pleasure.

WELDON: Always a pleasure to have you, especially now. "The Whale" is based on a 2012 play by Samuel D. Hunter, who adapted it for the screen himself. As portrayed by Brendan Fraser and his fat suit, Charlie is a sad, passive man who's forever apologizing for his mere existence. He apologizes to his friend and caretaker Liz, played by Hong Chau. He apologizes to his surly, possibly sociopathic daughter Ellie, played by Sadie Sink, and to his ex-wife Mary, played by Samantha Morton. Between bouts of binge eating, Charlie teaches a remote college writing course without turning on his camera. He's also visited several times by a young missionary played by Ty Simpkins.

"The Whale" grapples with a lot of subjects - fatness, queerness, religion, parenthood, self-hatred, grief, depression. It's in select theaters now and expanding to other cities over the next few weeks. And let me just say this at the top - it turns out, just so happens, neither one of us liked this film. That happens sometimes. We do bring in a range of voices, but sometimes all the voices on a given panel come down negative. We do hear from you sometimes when that happens. So I'm just going to say, if you were looking for one of us to champion this film, you're not going to find it on this episode. I would encourage you to listen anyway because there is no one in the universe I want to hear from more about this film than Guy Branum. You'll see why. Guy, take it away. Talk to me about "The Whale."

BRANUM: The thing is, when I went into watching this movie, I was very aware of the possibility that I would cry because when they cast Brendan Fraser as an extremely fat gay guy, him being neither extremely fat nor gay, I was like, is this the best we can do? And it led me to a lot of curiosity. I bought the play. I read the play. I wasn't a fan of the play. But I still went into it with, like, hope. And also, the experience of working on "Bros," a movie where a lot of gay men were very frustrated with the film, I was very much thinking about the narcissism of small differences. I was very much thinking about how inclined I was to dislike this thing. You know, in a world that doesn't represent people like me very much, it was purporting to come close to representing me, except that the character who is supposed to represent me is half a puppet.


BRANUM: It's a person...


BRANUM: ...Lodged in a puppet. And the mental gymnastics required to believe that the most empathetic way of telling this story, the way of getting inside the mind and the heart of this character, was using all of the tools of "The Klumps" and "Shallow Hal" combined...

WELDON: (Laughter).

BRANUM: ...Weren't great. And...


BRANUM: ...We all love Brendan Fraser, and we all want the best for Brendan Fraser, but his sincerity and his beauty as an artist was not enough to liberate this from the direction or the writing.

WELDON: Yeah, the direction or the writing. I mean, I'm going to give them both the benefit of the doubt. I don't think there is a sociological statement trying to be made here. I don't think that they're positing that fat people are fat because they hate themselves or that fatness is something people do to themselves out of guilt or shame or self-loathing. It is trying to do - is say that this guy is doing that, right? So it's not making a societal statement. It is trying to make a narrative statement, a dramatic one. And the reason this film fails as utterly as I think it does is I don't buy it for a second.


WELDON: It does not make the case. I don't believe this movie.

BRANUM: It doesn't make any sense. Like, why is he doing this? Like, why has he decided to bring this upon himself? Why has this person, who teaches an art form, so inelegantly kill himself?

WELDON: (Laughter).

BRANUM: And watching Brendan Fraser and a bunch of plastic gorge on cold KFC while a Foley artist makes a bunch of noises, it never felt real in the way that like - look; I am not somebody who has personally experienced drug addiction, so I was able to watch "Requiem For A Dream" and be like, wow, that's super intense. And I think there are people who are able to watch this movie and be like, goodness gracious, it must be so terrible to be so broken as a person that one does this. As an actual fat person, I'm like, I don't think anybody does this.

WELDON: Yeah, here's the thing - there is no truth here. There's no humanity. There is no real emotion. There's a whole lot of grasping at emotion. So it's emotionalism, right? There is no true sentiment here. It's all just false sentimentality indicating all over the place. That's why every moment, every frame just rings false and manipulative. Let's talk about the score at some point.

BRANUM: (Laughter).

WELDON: But, like, overdetermined, right? Because it is trying to get us all to those final moments of an ending we can't talk about, but, oh, I wish we could, at which I suppose - I mean, you read the play. I suppose in a perfect world, it could be legit moving. But as executed as thuddingly as it is here, it is just - Guy, it's laughably bad. It is hilariously unearned.

BRANUM: The emotion is so false. It is so predetermined and predestined from that first moment we get there, which sort of kills me because this film that purports to be paying homage to "Moby Dick" and Jonah and the whale. Like, the one thing that this movie brought to me was it forced me to reread the Book Of Jonah, which - I have to tell all listeners - it slaps. Jonah is somebody who tries to, like this character, will himself towards sadness, and God doesn't let him. And I don't understand why you would want to make this sad movie. And I certainly don't understand why you would want to bring me in as one of its central metaphors. Like, part of the trouble with this is it's not purporting to be about all fat people or all gay fat people or all gay people.

WELDON: Right.

BRANUM: But it is using that experience as a metaphor for this profound sadness that is in no way rooted in an honest experience.

WELDON: And let's talk about that dishonesty, that reaching for emotion because that brings me to something you tweeted upon seeing this film - four words, three periods, "The Whale" is camp. Say more about that.

BRANUM: Glen Weldon, as, like, a great scholar of camp and the homosexual arts, do you have any speculation as to what particular moment or scene might have inspired Guy Branum to say "The Whale" is camp?

WELDON: There - it's wall-to-wall. Was it the Three Musketeers bar scene? Which one was it?

BRANUM: I mean, the Three Musketeers bar scene is good. No, it's Hong Chau bouncing on him like a trampoline.


BRANUM: Like, the moment at which Hong Chau, to, like, give - attempt the Heimlich maneuver on Charlie, jumps up and down on his back, I was like, this is a moment that could play in, like, Palm Springs drag bars for all time.


BRANUM: No one here is a human being. This is...

WELDON: Exactly.

BRANUM: ...Tina, bring me the axe.

WELDON: It totally is. And I actually had the same vision of scenes, especially the ending, being watched and hooted at in the future because, again, this is "Reach Exceeds Grasp: The Movie." It just doesn't achieve anything that it's setting out to achieve. But, I mean, it's only been a decade since the play debuted and won, Guy, a GLAAD award. Their whole thing is representation. And there's some lines in here where Charlie is trying to take a stand and say, do I disgust you, which I suppose is what won it the award. But I just don't understand. I just don't understand.

BRANUM: The thing is - I would like to make an argument about representation and queers...


BRANUM: ...In cinema. I would say when straight people see gay people in a movie, they want to know that they are getting course credits. They want to know that they are learning something and that they are earning something and they're doing something right. They need those gay people sad, they need those gay people dying, and they need to know that capital-H homophobia is wrong. I would say when gay people, particularly cis white gay men - when we watch gay people in movies, our anxiety is about complexity, is about seeing the whole picture. We - as people with passing privilege, so many of us hide behind a nice smile and abs. Like, for decades and centuries, people have said, you're so sad. You're so unhealthy. There is no purpose to your life. And then, you know, sometime around "My Best Friend's Wedding," we got to be cool, cute guys, and we like to clutch that close.

And I think that this movie and the play before it attempted to represent abjection, sadness, some of the pain of being a queer person in our society. And it didn't sully anyone by implying that that might apply to a ripped guy in the city with a good job. Instead, it made this punching bag of a fat gay guy so that he would be distant enough from most gay men watching it that they could experience some catharsis in the representation of his pain. Unfortunately, I'm just not one of those guys. I mean, you put him in a bunch of, like, prosthetics to kind of look like me. He should just go do something fun. Like, honestly, that guy has every option to go do something fun. You know, order a meatball sub or two one night. Get yourself Chinese another night. It doesn't have to all be meatball subs.

WELDON: It's true. It's like this movie is all meatball subs all the time. There is something - you're picking up on something that I think I detect in interviews with Aronofsky and Hunter, not so much with Fraser. It's just a thread of self-righteousness, of a kind of delusional nobility, a kind of sense of, you're welcome. We're addressing this. But this is - again, this is something we talk about on the show all the time. Execution trumps intention. It doesn't matter what you think you made. Here's what you made. And there are people reacting to it.

Now, this is getting a wide range of reactions. And I got to say, I don't like to yuck anybody's yum. I don't like to call out other people's reactions, other critics especially. But there's something about this movie that angered me so much that whenever I see someone I otherwise respect describing this portrayal as sincere, empathetic, sensitive, I think, oh, y'all are broken. Or maybe you're just duped because you are mistaking the outward indication, which there's plenty of in this film - outward indication of empathy and insight for the thing itself. But broadly gesturing at something is not the thing.

BRANUM: This movie emotionally reminds me of - the thing I kept thinking of was, like, 19th-century, mustache-twirling, sort of, like, melodramatic pathos...


BRANUM: ...Of a sort we don't really see anymore. And when - I read so many reviews of this just trying to wrap my head around these people who are like, it's so touching. I walked away thinking about the world differently. And I don't entirely understand how that's possible. And maybe it's just because as somebody who identifies as very fat and a gay man, I can't see it from the same distance as those people. You know, I understands that I am not a mythological creature.

WELDON: (Laughter) Well, I'm coming at this as a gay man and also somebody who taught writing. And it is so telling that this teacher that Fraser plays, Charlie, is all about honesty. Don't revise. Don't worry about structure. Just be honest, which is great advice when you're filling out your therapy workbook. But it is literally the worst thing you can tell a young writer. That's how you get self-obsessed, self-indulgent, self-justifying, navel-gazing writing that is too real for an audience. So that - again, the list of sins this movie makes - it's way down the list. But he bugged the hell out of me, and he's also a lousy judge of his students' writing and of his daughter's writing.

But let's talk about the Fraser of it all, OK? This is being talked about as Brendan Fraser's comeback, although he is the first to tell you he never went away. He's working in television a lot. He is one of the goofier things on a goofy show I like called "Doom Patrol." But he hasn't had a leading role like this one in a while. And, you know, the Oscar talk started as soon as "The Whale" premiered at Venice and then later at TIFF, though I think it's safe to say that reactions since other people started seeing this film have been more varied, maybe more muted. What'd you think?

BRANUM: He's a great actor. He is an amazing actor. And I think he tried to give a whole lot of honesty and sympathy to this character. But the character is just a simp. Like, the character is just sad for sad's sake. You know, you make the point about being a writing teacher, and I just don't understand how somebody - they never give you a good logic for how this person who loves art and is so optimistic about other people's possibilities has no sense of self, has no belief in himself and has no capacity for pleasure anymore. Like, it's possible that there is a performer who could have found that. Brendan Fraser did not.

And I think that the fact that he had a bunch of stuff on top of him made it a whole lot more difficult to connect with that. You know, I mean, he's having to act through all of this stuff. For me, oh, he's so likable because he's so sad. I get that. And I will be happy when Brendan Fraser wins an Academy Award. Many people have won Academy Awards for not the thing that they should have won an Academy Award for.

WELDON: Yeah, that's certainly true. And say this much for him. I mean, for most of the running time he is - yeah, he's a simp. But he's listening. He's reactive, which means that as an actor, he's got more room to go than, say, Sadie Sink, who is working at the same fever pitch from the first moment she's on screen. She's got nowhere to go. She is just this one-note character throughout.

BRANUM: She went to the "Zoey 101" school of leaning forward while you act.

WELDON: OK (laughter).

BRANUM: Like, yeah, people are talking about this for a best supporting actress nomination. Hong Chau I have great sympathy for.


BRANUM: She's been the best thing in a lot of duds. And, you know, she does what she can with this strangely written character. But Sadie Sink is just yelling. And she, if anyone, unmakes the possibility of this film. Like, the climax of this film rests on a belief in the motivation for an act of hers that feels farcical when it is posited. And maybe if she had found a couple of other colors to paint this character with, I might have been there for it.

WELDON: Yeah, I mean, but characters behave in this way that is completely dictated by the plot, not by any kind of interior consistency. I mean, I don't want to talk about the missionary kid, but the missionary kid is all over the damn map. Like, he's a cipher. You don't know what he's going to do in any given scene, which is not the way humans work.

BRANUM: OK. I think that the missionary kid is one of the great losses...


BRANUM: ...From the original play. I mean, the editing in the first 20 minutes - I was like, what the hell's going on? Like, people just keep walking in the door. And there was in the play, at least the way I read it, some degree of play and eroticism between this gay man who does have a sexuality and a cute boy who has walked into his house unbidden. And Darren Aronofsky didn't have enough space for even that much gayness in his film.


BRANUM: The gayness that we get is the main character in the opening moments almost masturbating himself to death. And that's a big swing, and it does not connect with anything.

WELDON: To some of the most chaste gay porn I think you'll ever see (laughter).

BRANUM: Right.

WELDON: Just a bunch of shirtless guys hugging above the waist.

BRANUM: I mean, Charlie in "The Whale" is like if every well-meaning straight person imagined together their dream of an asexual, helpful, useless gay guy who would eventually disappear himself through his own self-destruction.

WELDON: Oh, wow. That's such a sad note to end on. But it's such a perfect one because (laughter) that's this film in a pathetic, little nutshell. Is there anything else you wanted to hit that we haven't talked about, though?

BRANUM: Darren Aronofsky received some criticism about casting Brendan Fraser, and his response was to say that casting an actual very fat person or, God forbid, a very fat gay person would have been impractical because of the risks on set. And I desperately pleaded with Nick Stoller, the director of "Bros," to take out a full-page ad in Variety attesting that he had worked with me for the better part of four months, and I did not explode on set once from fatness. The mental gymnastics required to believe that the most honest way of telling this story was to put Brendan Fraser in a fat suit rests on the sincere belief that very fat people aren't human beings.

We make television about very fat people all the time. TLC is full of it. NBC made it a staple of their primetime lineup. They were putting 600-pound people on a set and making something with them, but it presented those people as animals who needed to be yelled at. And this movie kind of also wants - like, in trying to give it slightly more than being an animal that needs to be yelled at, we have to have sympathy. And part of that sympathy comes from knowing that Brendan Fraser used to be a human being with a waist. And part of the reason that we are tempted to sympathize with him in the movie is because we know he once was hot and now has gone to the dark and terrible place of unhotness (ph).

WELDON: Well, I think you know what we think about "The Whale." We want to know what you think about "The Whale." Find us at Facebook dot com slash page. That brings us to the end of our show. Guy Branum, holy crap, thank you so much for being here. This was perfect.

BRANUM: Always a pleasure, Glen.

WELDON: And, of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. This episode was produced by Mike Katzif and edited by Jessica Reedy. And Hello Come In provides our theme music, which you are writing a ridiculously on-the-nose "Moby Dick" essay to right now. I'm Glen Weldon, and we'll see you all tomorrow.

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