The Whale--Charlie is an English professor, passionately teaching online courses in essay writing, but his center square on the Zoom grid is always blacked out. He claims the camera on his computer doesn't work, but his students, inevitably, are intrigued. Ever self-deprecating, Charlie assures them that they're not missing much.
This isn't really true. Charlie, played by Brendan Fraser, is morbidly obese, weighing in at 600 pounds. He lives alone in, and works from, a shabby apartment, visited by his sole friend Liz (Hong Chau), a nurse who tries to warn him about the imminent danger of death he's in. At the same time, she serves as his pained enabler, supplying him with fried chicken and candy bars. The two share a link to the tragedy which led to Charlie's self-destructive eating habits.
In the course of the story, Charlie bribes his furious estranged teenage daughter (Sadie Sink) to spend time with him; he's also pestered by a young missionary kid (Ty Simpkins). Eventually we get to meet Charlie's ex (Samantha Morton) as well. Almost everything takes place in or just outside the apartment; director Darren Aronofsky wisely hasn't bothered to "open out" Samuel D. Hunter's play (Hunter wrote the adaptation). This concentrated setting only adds to the claustrophobia of Charlie's situation.
It's hard to miss the story's parallel to that of Aronofsky's 2008 The Wrestler--a guy at the end of his physical rope tries for an eleventh-hour reconciliation with his daughter. And as Mickey Rourke, in a comeback role, was the story with The Wrestler, the story here is Brendan Fraser, likewise in a comeback role.
I've always found Fraser enviable--hunky looks plus an unpretentious likability. Thus even the many terrible movies he's starred in come across like they were fun to do, and that in itself made stuff like George of the Jungle and Journey to the Center of the Earth less dreary, at least a little (maybe not Furry Vengeance).
But in The Whale, Aronofsky has put Fraser's soulful sweetness to use beyond merely ingratiating himself with the audience. Working inside harrowingly convincing prosthetic makeup by Adrien Morot, Fraser is an angelic presence as Charlie, radiant with compassion and love, yet also with reflective intelligence, and depths of unexpressed sorrow and anger and desperation.
There may not really be a lot to the film beyond Fraser's performance, and the crisp, controlled mix of anger and adoration in Hong Chau's Liz. Some scenes here verge on the overwrought, I suppose, and there are revelations that would probably play better on the stage. But nothing seems campy or patronizing. The Whale is a vehicle, perhaps, but it's a vehicle for an unforgettable, maybe even classic star turn.
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