The return of Brendan Fraser — not that he ever really left — was a reminder of the affection many of us had for him in the ’90s, when he had his moment in movies like ‘School Ties’ and ‘Encino Man. ” and “Gods and the Monsters” and “The Mummy”. But let’s be honest: this is not the return of John Travolta or Mickey Rourke. Fraser has always been, in the best way, a light actor: blue eyes the pin-up sex appeal, the warm, furry innocence of a boy. The fact that at 53, he isn’t as handsome as he used to be, is part of the Brendabirthday. He can’t hold on anymore. screen like a handsome kid; he has to do it differently. And in “The whale,” realized by Darren Aronofsky (who helmed Rourke’s comeback in “The Wrestler”), Fraser is a better actor – sneakier, more subtle, more haunting – than he’s ever been.
He plays Charlie, a several-hundred-pound man who sits all day in his shabby, run-down apartment in small-town Idaho. Fraser has been fitted with a big digital suit (the effects that inflate it are a mix of prosthetics and CGI), and the result is that we see someone staring at home in their flesh. The slanted jowls that devour his neck, the big wide back and the gigantic jelly belly that spills over his crotch, the arms and legs that look like chunks of meat – Charlie is a mountain man, but he’s all a piece. Fraser, with thinning sweaty hair stuck to his scalp, looks like a drunk Rodney Dangerfield. The actor sinks into that body, so even when we look at a man the size of Jabba the Hutt, we register the familiar, soulful look in his eyes, the distended remains of Fraser beauty.
When we first see Charlie, he is frantically masturbating to a porn video. Once it’s over, it seems, for a moment, that he literally can’t get up from his chair. With great effort, however, he eventually does, using a walker to walk around the apartment. Since Charlie is mostly sedentary, you might expect him to have a heavy personality as well. But Fraser doesn’t play it with a heavy, brooding, downbeat vibe. He’s sweet and lively, with a quick temper — you might even say there’s something lighthearted about him — and that allows us, from the start, to see the man buried in fat.
“The Whale” is based on a play by Samuel D. Hunter, who also wrote the screenplay, and the entire film takes place in Charlie’s apartment, with most of it taking place in this seedy, bookish living room. Aronofsky doesn’t necessarily “open” the room, but working with the great cinematographer Matthew Libatique, he doesn’t need to. Shot with no frills, the film has a clear visual flow. And given Fraser’s likable and fascinating character of Charlie, we can’t wait to settle down with him in this depressive lair and get to the bottom of the film’s two inevitable dramatic questions: How did Charlie get here? And can he be saved?
In case there was any doubt that he needs rescuing, “The Whale” quickly establishes that he is a drug addict living a life of isolated misery and self-loathing, erasing his despair (at various points , we see him go to a bucket of fried chicken, a drawer full of candy, and bulky take-out pizzas at Gambino’s, all rather sad to see). Charlie teaches an expository writing seminar at an online college, doing it over Zoom, which looks great today (although the movie, for no good reason, is set during the 2016 presidential primary season), with video footage of the students surrounding a small black square in the center of the screen. This is where Charlie should be; he tells the students that his laptop’s camera isn’t working, which is his way of hiding his body and the shame he feels about it. But he’s a shrewd teacher who knows what good writing is, even if his lessons on structure and thematic sentences fall on listless ears.
Charlie has a friend of sorts, Liz (Hong Chau), who happens to be a nurse, and when she comes over and finds out her blood pressure is in the 240/130 range, she declares it to be a emergency situation. He suffers from congestive heart failure; with that kind of blood pressure, he’ll be dead in a week. But Charlie refuses to go to the hospital, and will continue to do so. He has a convenient excuse. Without health insurance, if he seeks treatment, he will end up with 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 speaks to a deeper crisis. He does not do want to to help. If he dies (and this is the basic suspense of the film), it will essentially be a suicide.
It’s hard not to notice that Liz, given how much she cares for Charlie, has a sharp and rather abrasive personality. We think: okay, that’s who she is. But a few other characters enter the film – and when Ellie (Sadie Sink), Charlie’s 17-year-old daughter, appears, we notice she has a really sharp and abrasive personality. Does Charlie just find himself surrounded by hellcats and cranks? Or is there something about Hunter’s dialogue that’s simply, reflexively overdone in its theatrical hostility?
Charlie and Ellie are separated, and as the film colors their relationship, we begin to piece together the puzzle of how Charlie became the morbid wreckage that he is. It seems eight years ago he left Ellie and her mother when he fell in love with one of her students, a man named Andy. Andy became the love of Charlie’s life, so he left the life he had behind. Ellie is still mad about it.
And what rage it is! Sadie Sink of “Stranger Things” acts with a fire and directness reminiscent of young Lindsay Lohan, but the unstable spitfire she plays is bitter – against her father and against the world – in an absolutist way that sounds absolutely fake. Many teenagers are angry and alienated, but they are not just angry and alienated. There are shades of vulnerability that come with this age. We continue to expect Ellie to show another side, to reflect that the father who resents her is still, on some level… her father.
“The Whale,” though it has a gripping character at its core, proves to be equal parts sincerity and hokum. The film pulls us in, attaching audiences to Fraser’s intensely lived and touching performance, but the further it goes, the more its drama is intertwined with tenacious contrivances, like the whole question of why this father and daughter were so estranged from each other. We learn that after Charlie and Ellie’s mother Mary (Samantha Morton) divorced, Mary was granted full custody and separated Charlie from Ellie. But they never stopped living in the same small town, and even single parents without custody have the legal right to see their children. Charlie, we are told, was looking forward to having children; he lived with Ellie and her mother until the girl was eight. So why would he just…let her go?
There’s another major character, a young missionary lost to the New Life Church named Thomas, and while Ty Simpkins plays him appealingly, the way this cult church plays out in the movie feels like a hard-to-swallow conceit too much. . That matters a lot, because if we can’t totally buy what’s going on, we won’t be as moved by Charlie’s path to redemption. Towards the end, there is a very moving moment. It’s when Charlie discusses the “Moby Dick” essay he read throughout the film, and we learn where the essay came from and why it means so much to him. If only the rest of the movie was so compelling! But most of “The Whale” just isn’t as good as Brendan Fraser’s performance. For what it reports, though, it’s worth seeing.
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