6 October 2022

Brendan Fraser’s ‘Oscar-worthy’ role

Darren Aronofsky’s latest is a “well-meaning redemption story”, which stars Brendan Fraser as a morbidly obese literature professor. It’s hard to imagine anyone being as captivating in the role, writes Nicholas Barber.

They’re calling it “The Brenaissance”. After years in the Hollywood wilderness, Brendan Fraser is getting parts in major films again – including DC’s shot-but-shelved Batgirl movie – and his fans are hoping that this will lead to a career revival to compare to Matthew McConaughey’s “McConaissance” a few years ago. The most important stepping-stone on Fraser’s route back to the A-list is Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival on Sunday. Why is it so important? For one thing, it’s a high-profile drama from a big-name director. For another, Fraser has the lead role, and he appears in almost every scene. For a third, Fraser undergoes one of those has-to-be-seen-to-be-believed physical transformations that awards voters can’t resist. It’s a far cry from George of the Jungle. 

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Fraser plays Charlie, a gay Ohio literature professor who never leaves his dingy, cluttered apartment, and keeps his camera switched off during his Zoom lectures. The reason for this shyness is that he has been depressed since the suicide of his lover, several years ago, and he has kept eating to the point where he is morbidly obese. Indeed, he is so heavy now that his heart is failing, and he may well die within days. His loyal, loving carer, Liz (the excellent Hong Chau) urges him to go to hospital, and a gauche missionary (Ty Simpkins) from a local evangelical church is determined to save his soul. But all Charlie cares about is talking to Ellie (Sadie Sink), the 17-year-old daughter he hasn’t seen since he left her and her mother (Samantha Morton) eight years earlier.

The Whale

Directed by: Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Brendan Fraser, Sadie Sink, Samantha Morton
Film length: 1h 57m

The Whale requires Fraser to wear the biggest “fat suit” since Terry Jones exploded in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life. (One of Charlie’s favourite books is Moby Dick, so the title isn’t just a reference to his size.) It’s rare to see prosthetic make-up on this scale outside of a body-horror movie, but it’s so well done that the viewer comes to accept it within minutes. What’s even more impressive is that, despite being encased in a mountain of rubber, Fraser is expressive enough to melt your heart. There’s a remarkable nimbleness to his facial movements and a soulful gentleness to his voice, but it’s his wide, pleading, hopeful blue eyes that make it hard to imagine anyone else being as captivating in the role.

It’s not so hard to imagine a better film, though. The Whale is a kind of companion piece to the director’s 2008 hit, The Wrestler (although, unusually for Aronofsky, he didn’t write either of them), in that it involves a man with an estranged daughter, a heart condition, and a body he has pushed to painfully unhealthy extremes. It’s worth remembering, too, that The Wrestler revived the career of its leading man, Mickey Rourke, if only briefly.

The key difference between the two projects is that The Wrestler had so much grit and dynamism, whereas The Whale, which is adapted by Samuel D Hunter from his own play, never lets you forget its theatrical origins. That’s not just because Aronofsky chooses to shoot it simply, on one unconvincing set. It’s also because it retains the pacing, structure and conventions of a solid but clichéd melodrama. The staginess is there in the way that the characters take it in turns to visit Charlie and have polished, thematically relevant conversations with him, the way that so many people conveniently enter his life within a week-long time span, and the way that they conveniently reveal the hidden connections between them. 

For a film that opens with a 40-stone man suffering chest spasms after masturbating to online pornography, The Whale turns out to be disappointingly stodgy and sentimental. Charlie talks – and talks and talks – about the importance of honesty in writing, but much of this well-meaning redemption story is too corny to ring true – the cynical daughter, in particular. And when Fraser makes his impassioned, tearful speech towards the end, as the camera holds his face and syrupy strings drip all over the soundtrack, it is almost a parody of the clips that are shown at awards ceremonies when the nominations are read out.

Still, parodic or not, this sequence is definitely going to be used a lot in the months to come. Fraser richly deserves to be nominated for a best actor Oscar, and if that doesn’t happen, I won’t just eat my hat, I’ll eat as many pizzas and cheese-and-meatball sandwiches as Charlie gets through in the film. The Brenaissance is here.

★★★☆☆

The Whale is released in the US on 9 December

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