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‘The Whale’ Review: Brendan Fraser Is Towering in a Lesser Darren Aronofsky

For Fraser, "The Whale" is a confident leap forward into the movie-star status that he rightfully deserves.

The Whale

“The Whale”

A24

Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2022 Venice Film Festival. A24 releases the film in theaters on Friday, December 9.

There are two things to be a little worried about and one thing to be extremely excited about when coming into “The Whale.”

The first element of concern is director Darren Aronofsky, who admittedly has made exceptional films like “Requiem for a Dream” and “Pi” and gotten career-defining performances out of his leads in “Black Swan” and “The Wrestler.” But his last two films, “Noah” and “mother!,” succumbed to all his worst instincts, creating bloated self-indulgent nonsense that was actively painful to sit through.

In “The Whale,” also slightly worrying is the use of “fat suits,” which contemporary audiences are becoming increasingly uncomfortable with. Much of the use of these so-called fat suits has been to create fat-phobic jokes, particularly by turning thin movie stars like Gwyneth Paltrow, Julia Roberts, and Courteney Cox into walking punchlines. Even when the usage itself is fat-phobic, in the case of Sarah Paulson as Linda Tripp in “American Crime Story,” there’s also the consideration that heavier actors who often struggle to get roles aren’t getting the opportunity to play fat parts.

However, most of those coming to “The Whale” may brim with goodwill because of Brendan Fraser. Having suffered well-documented injury and abuse from the film industry, Fraser retreated from Hollywood, leaving behind heartbroken Gen X-ers and millennials who adored him in a wide range of roles, from delightful himbos to tragic underdogs and wise-cracking action heroes. After a few tentative steps back into the spotlight in small roles and television appearances, the comeback was further solidified when he was cast in Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon” and Steven Soderbergh’s “No Sudden Move.” Darren Aronofsky’s “The Whale” makes it official: The Brendanaissance is on!

Fraser gives a towering performance, in every sense of the word, as Charlie, a 600-pound man who teaches writing courses online and never leaves his apartment. Despite the best efforts of his nurse best friend Liz (Hong Chau), Charlie refuses to go to the hospital, even though he is displaying signs of congestive heart failure and has a blood pressure of 238/134. Charlie has never recovered since the death of Alan, the “love of his life,” a few years prior and has spent the time since on his sofa, slowly eating himself to death. This final week almost operates like an introvert’s companion piece to “Leaving Las Vegas,” a similar journey in self-destruction, but here with a quiet commitment to loneliness. The action of “The Whale,” true to the play it’s based on, never leaves Charlie’s small apartment.

The fat suit is what it is. There are plenty of valid reasons to think this film has unacceptably fat-phobic undertones and positions, particularly a scene where it seems to suggest a person could overdose on mayonnaise like it’s uncut heroin. And many could be triggered by a central fat character being openly called “disgusting” throughout. But in terms of practical effects, it’s hard to not be impressed by the prosthetics, particularly around Fraser’s face, as they do appear reasonably realistic. He’s able to give a funny and devastating performance seemingly without hindrance.

Charlie knows that he’s only got a few more days, so he decides to reconnect with his estranged daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink), whom he left behind when he fell in love with Alan eight years ago. She’s now 16 and flunking high school. The pair’s only contact has been through child-support payment and sporadic updates via her mother. Ellie is a nightmarish caricature of a teenage girl. Sink unwisely keeps her performance at a 10 in every moment, which is cumulatively grating. Respite comes when her mother, played by the always-excellent Samantha Morton, comes to see Charlie about their troubled daughter landing the film’s biggest laugh in a well-timed “Charlie! She’s evil!”

Despite the hilarity of that cutting assessment, “The Whale” actually works best at its least cruel. When Fraser gets to show off Charlie’s wit in a back-and-forth with a persistent and hypocrite missionary Thomas (Ty Simpkins), gently smiling as he reassures him, “I’ve read the Bible. I thought it was devastating.” Or indeed when Liz jokingly threatens to stab him, and he gives her a hug and tenderly makes her laugh by whispering, “What’s that gonna do? My internal organs are two feet in at least.” When his confrontation with Morton is so filled with mutual compassion, it’s hard to believe that this is from the same film that framed Charlie slovenly eating a chicken wing with such brazen disgust.

Without Brendan Fraser’s innate charm and ability to project gentle sadness through the slightest flicker of his huge blue eyes, “The Whale” wouldn’t have that much else going for it. Faultless performances from Morton and Chau illuminate complicated relationships with Charlie, a man at once lovable, frustrating, and dishonest.

Aronofsky’s direction is cautious but brings a cinematic flair, which plays into Charlie’s claustrophobic existence rather than just feeling burdened by the story’s origin on the stage (where it is confined to a single set). Samuel D. Hunter’s script has elements to recommend it. The “Moby Dick” allusions, which seem onerous in the film’s beginning, build to something moving and, in the film’s final moments, even profound.

For Fraser, “The Whale” is a confident leap forward into the movie-star status that he rightfully deserves. For the normally more muted Venice audience who typically scramble for the exit the moment the film ends, just the sight of Fraser’s name at the end credits made the crowd turn back to the screen to cheer and applaud the actor’s triumphant return. If that rapturous applause carries on throughout awards season, that may prove the most wonderful and moving moment of this whale’s journey.

Grade: B-

“The Whale” premiered at the 2022 Venice Film Festival. A24 will release it in theatres on Friday, December 9.

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