The return of Brendan Fraser — not that he ever really went away — has been a reminder of how much affection so many of us had for him back in the ’90s, when he had his moment in movies like “School Ties” and “Encino Man” and “Gods and Monsters” and “The Mummy.” Yet let’s be honest: This is not the comeback of John Travolta or Mickey Rourke. Fraser was always, in the best way, a lightweight actor: the clear blue eyes, the pin-up sexiness, the shaggy warm boyish innocence. The fact that, at 53, he’s no longer as beautiful as he once was is part of the Brendanaissance. He can no longer hold the screen as a cutie-pie hunk; he has to do it in other ways. And in “The Whale,” directed by Darren Aronofsky (who shepherded Rourke’s return in “The Wrestler”), Fraser is a better actor — slyer, subtler, more haunting — than he has ever been.
He plays Charlie, a man of many hundreds of pounds who sits all day long in his shabby dank apartment in a small town in Idaho. Fraser has been outfitted with a digital fat suit (the effects that bulk him up are a blend of prosthetics and CGI), and the result is that we see someone who looks at home in his flesh. The sloping jowls that consume his neck, the big wide back and gigantic jelly belly that spills down over his crotch, the arms and legs that are like meat slabs — Charlie is a mountain of a man, but he’s all of a piece. Fraser, with sweaty thinning hair plastered on his scalp, resembles an overstuffed Rodney Dangerfield. The actor sinks himself into that body, so that even as we’re gawking at a fellow the size of Jabba the Hutt we register the familiar soulful look in the eye, the distended remnants of the Fraser handsomeness.
When we first see Charlie, he’s frantically masturbating to a porn video. Once that’s over, it seems, for a while, like he literally can’t lift himself out of his armchair. With great effort, however, he finally does, using a walker to skulk around the apartment. Since Charlie is mostly a sedentary lump, you might expect him to have a lumpish personality too. But Fraser doesn’t play him with a heavy, glum, downbeat vibe. He’s gentle and spry, with a quick temperament — you might even say there’s something light about him — and this allows us, from the start, to see the man buried in the fat.
“The Whale” is based on a stageplay by Samuel D. Hunter, who also wrote the script, and the entire film takes place in Charlie’s apartment, most of it unfolding in that seedy bookish living room. Aronofsky doesn’t necessarily “open up” the play, but working with the great cinematographer Matthew Libatique he doesn’t need to. Shot without flourishes, the movie has a plainspoken visual flow to it. And given what a sympathetic and fascinating character Fraser makes Charlie, we’re eager to settle in with him in that depressive lair, and to get to the bottom of the film’s inevitable two dramatic questions: How did Charlie get this way? And can he be saved?
In case there is any doubt he needs saving, “The Whale” quickly establishes that he’s an addict living a life of isolated misery and self-disgust, scarfing away his despair (at various points we see him going at a bucket of fried chicken, a drawer full of candy, and voluminous take-out pizzas from Gambino’s, all of which is rather sad to behold). Charlie teaches an expository writing seminar at an online college, doing it on Zoom, which looks very today (though the film, for no good reason, is set during the presidential primary season of 2016), with video images of the students surrounding a small black square at the center of the screen. That’s where Charlie should be; he tells the students his laptop camera isn’t working, which is his way of hiding his body and the shame he feels about it. But he’s a canny teacher who knows what good writing is, even if his lessons about structure and topic sentences fall on apathetic ears.
Charlie has a friend of sorts, Liz (Hong Chau), who happens to be a nurse, and when she comes over and learns that his blood pressure is in the 240/130 range, she declares it an emergency situation. He has congestive heart failure; with that kind of blood pressure, he’ll be dead in a week. But Charlie refuses to go the hospital, and will continue to do so. He’s got a handy excuse. With no health insurance, if he seeks medical care he’ll run up tens of thousands of dollars in bills. As Liz points out, it’s better to be in debt than dead. But Charlie’s resistance to healing himself bespeaks a deeper crisis. He doesn’t want help. If he dies (and that’s the film’s basic suspense), it will essentially be a suicide.
It’s hard not to notice that Liz, given how much she’s taking care of Charlie, has a spiky and rather abrasive personality. We think: Okay, that’s who she is. But a couple of other characters enter the movie — and when Ellie (Sadie Sink), Charlie’s 17-year-old daughter, shows up, we notice that she has a really spiky and abrasive personality. Does Charlie just happen to be surrounded by hellcats and cranks? Or is there something in Hunter’s dialogue that is simply, reflexively over-the-top in its theatrical hostility?
Charlie and Ellie are estranged, and as the film colors in their relationship, we begin to put together the puzzle of how Charlie got to be the morbidly obese wreck he is. It seems that eight years ago, he left Ellie and her mother when he fell in love with one of his students, a man named Andy. Andy became the love of Charlie’s life, so he left the life he had behind. Ellie is still in a rage about it.
And what a rage it is! Sadie Sink, from “Stranger Things,” acts with a fire and directness that recalls the young Lindsay Lohan, but the volatile spitfire she’s playing is bitter — at her father, and at the world — in an absolutist way that rings absolutely false. Lots of teenagers are angry and alienated, but they’re not just angry and alienated. There are shades of vulnerability that come with being that age. We keep waiting for Ellie to show another side, to reflect the fact that the father she resents is still, on some level … her father.
“The Whale,” while it has a captivating character at its center, turns out to be equal parts sincerity and hokum. The movie carries us along, tethering the audience to Fraser’s intensely lived-in and touching performance, yet the more it goes on the more its drama is interlaced with nagging contrivances, like the whole issue of why this father and daughter were ever so separated from each other. We learn that after Charlie and Ellie’s mother, Mary (Samantha Morton), were divorced, Mary got full custody and cut Charlie off from Ellie. But they never stopped living in the same small town, and even single parents who don’t have custody are legally entitled to see their children. Charlie, we’re told, was eager to have kids; he lived with Ellie and her mother until the girl was eight. So why would he have just … let her go?
There’s one other major character, a lost young missionary for the New Life Church named Thomas, and though Ty Simpkins plays him appealingly, the way this cult-like church plays into the movie feels like one hard-to-swallow conceit too many. This matters a lot, because if we can’t totally buy what’s happening, we won’t be as moved by Charlie’s road to redemption. Near the end, there’s a very moving moment. It’s when Charlie is discussing the essay on “Moby Dick” he’s been reading pieces of throughout the film, and we learn where the essay comes from and why it means so much to him. If only the rest of the movie were that convincing! But most of “The Whale” simply isn’t as good as Brendan Fraser’s performance. For what he brings off, though, it deserves to be seen.