by Kevin Muller
Brendan Fraser may not be a household name now, but back in the 90s he was one of the most popular actors. He came on to the scene as Link, in the 1993’s Encino Man, where he played a thawed-out caveman that was thrown into that era. Additionally, he turned up in the action-adventure film The Mummy, where he showed he could both hit the comedic elements of the character while also projecting the necessary bravado reserved for those roles. It seemed that he was heading towards the top, but after a few setbacks, involving his career and personal life, he started only showing up here and there in few movies. Now, acclaimed director Darren Aronofsky has given Fraser the keys back to stardom with the lead in his new film The Whale. After all these years, does Fraser still have it?
The film, based upon the stage play written by Samuel D. Hunter, who also wrote the film’s screenplay, is mostly set in the apartment of Fraser’s Charlie. He is a college writing professor that conducts classes through zoom, with his video blacked out from his students. They can’t see that he is over 600 pounds and wallowing in his own depression. Before the events of the film, we find out that he left his wife and daughter for a male student. Unfortunately, his lover took his own life, leaving Charlie heartbroken and alone. His only company is his health aide, Liz, an excellent Hong Chau, who is put through constant crisis because of his poor health choices. Soon after, his daughter Ellie, played by Stranger Things Sadie Sink, also enters the picture looking for his assistance with writing a paper. She is strict about the terms of their time together, emphasizing that there will be no relationship between them, it is strictly business.
The main draw here is Fraser, who is phenomenal as Charlie. This is a man who is grasping on to anything that gives him hope. Unfortunately, for him and Liz, it is getting his hands on any type of food, which acts as comfort for him. There are points where his binge eating is quite uncomfortable to watch. Fraser is careful not to make Charlie into a freakshow. There is so much empathy to this character. The actor, even in his quirky comedic roles, can take the most naïve, pathetic, or weak characters and inject humanity into them. We know Charlie has made reckless mistakes, but like any of us, he is still a human who yearns for love and a happy life. While the emotional scenes do hit hard, there are a few moments when Fraser can make us laugh and show us the good guy Charlie is underneath it all (No pun intended). Another part of his performance which is impressive is his detailed dedication of being a physically disabled person. The makeup effects help realize the character even more but never distracts from the performance.
Unfortunately, the film around this performance isn’t as strong. First off, the character of Thomas, played by Ty Simpkins, is the biggest miss in this entire thing. Simpkins isn’t a bad actor, but he isn’t given enough to do with the character. The kind of character that Hunter writes has been seen and done way better in many other films or television shows. In result, the run time, 2 hours, could’ve trimmed down and made the film smoother. Sadie Sink fares better as his daughter. She brings a real pain to Ellie that is believable to anyone who may have had an absentee parent. Aronofsky loves his characters to be dragged through the mud. Either he is doing it psychologically, Black Swan, physically The Wrestler, or through the filter of religion Mother! and addiction Requiem for a Dream. In his past films, it seemed he had more to work with cinematically, by using the settings of those films. Here, the play like structure prevents a true cinematic vision of this story. It’s a hard feat to accomplish, even for a seasoned vet like Aronofsky. In result, it drags at points, despite the performances doing the heavy lifting. One specific one, that comes in the middle of the film, will reward you with sitting through the slower parts. I won’t say the actresses’ name, but film lovers won’t be surprised that she brings her A-game to her limited screen time.
All the standing ovations and praise you’ve heard about Fraser are true. The faults are there, but it is such a pleasure to watch him. This maybe one of Aronofsky’s lesser films, but all he has given a second chance to one of the most lovable and talented performers out there.
I’m giving The Whale a 3.5 out of 5 Hairpieces!