By Lynn Venhaus
Brendan Fraser is heartbreaking and haunting as a morbidly obese recluse with mental and physical health problems in the difficult-to-watch “The Whale.”
He’s a reclusive English teacher who has an opportunity to reconnect with his estranged teenage daughter (Sadie Sink).
As Charlie, he is attracting year-end awards attention, and deservedly so. It’s a stunning, brave performance from Fraser, possibly his best. He depicts this bruised man as a gentle soul whose tragic flaw was caring too much in a disingenuous environment.
Now 54, he has been acting for three decades. Deemed a heartthrob in his 20s after such films as “George of the Jungle” and “The Mummy,” his varied career has included comedies (“Airheads,” “Encino Man”), dramas (“Gods and Monsters,” “Crash”), TV (“The Affair” and “Trust”), and voice-over animation work (King of the Hill,” “The Simpsons”). Most recently, he’s been playing Cliff Steele on the HBOMax series “Doom Patrol.”
While wearing prosthetics to make him look like a 600-lb. man, Fraser allows us to see the hurting human being inside. Charlie is dying and can’t stop eating himself to death – it’s a choice.
Shots of his girth, his inability to move without assistance, and a trapped, confined, lethargic existence where he shuns easier mobility are painful and sad.
The remarkable transformation was crafted by makeup artist Adrien Morot, who was Oscar nominated for “Barney’s Version,” and has worked on the 2019 “Pet Sematary” reboot and “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” among his credits.
“The Whale” is a bleak adaptation of a play by Samuel D. Hunter on how a character gets into his current predicament because of loss, guilt, and love. The amount of self-loathing makes it painful to witness, but Fraser is never not authentic.
Confined to a run-down two-bedroom home that reflects how frozen in time the lead character is, Charlie has not been able to get past his lover’s suicide years earlier. He has shut himself off from society, hidden away in a grief cocoon of his own making.
A learned man, as reflected by crammed bookshelves, with an academic career – he teaches online English classes, he offers to write his estranged daughter’s high school assignments. He is desperate to reconnect with her, and it becomes a shot at redemption.
As played by Sadie Sink, Ellie is a sullen, snarling, and angry teen who lashes out at everyone, especially her father, whom she blames for many of his failings, and hers. Her dad left when she was 8 years old, because he had fallen in love with one of his students.
The plot connects more dots, because nurse Liz, in a tough-love performance from Hong Chau, has a history with Charlie.
She does not indulge in his solitary imprisonment, but at the same time, tries to be realistic about his death march.
The playwright obviously has an axe to grind about evangelicals and their quest for salvation. The religious ties are revealed slowly, but Thomas, a missionary from “New Life Ministries,” looking very similar to a Mormon, attempts a conversion. He’s adroitly played by Ty Simpkins, now grown-up, most known for being the older brother in “Jurassic World” and a kid in “Iron Man 3.”
He is not as innocent as he seems, but seems unfairly targeted by Ellie, who can’t hide her disdain — but the mocking is cruel.
The backstories get sorted out, but no encounter is a random one. Samantha Morton has another outstanding cameo (she is brilliant as an informant in “She Said”) as Charlie’s bitter ex-wife. The resentment is no longer simmering, it’s a full-on rolling boil.
A lot of yelling is directed at Charlie, and between mother and daughter, so the confrontations are blunt and in-your-face. You begin to understand why Charlie wants to be left alone. Why deal with the messiness of humanity?
The playwright, who wrote the film adaptation, set the play in Mormon country in Idaho, and belabors the point repeatedly.
The theme doesn’t vary that much from director Darren Aronofsky’s familiar darker and often nihilistic films (“Requiem for a Dream,” “Black Swan,” “Mother!”).
You can see its stage roots showing, and the author clumsily connects Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” obsession to the situation facing Charlie, while the evangelical ties are also heavy-handed.
Even though glimmers of hope emerge, when Charlie says: “Who would want me to be part of their life?,” it’s a gut-punch.
There are two gasp-worthy scenes – an eat-your-feelings binge that’s horrifying and a devastating reveal to students, that one must summon empathy and compassion or check out.
So much of the distressing story has a “too little, too late” tinge to it, adding to the feelings of regret and recrimination that permeate the space.
Because of the script’s complexities, you know that the ending won’t be a sweet, sappy resolution. Yet, the way it concludes is still unexpected.
Overall, “The Whale” is an unsettling and uneven work, marked by good performances that deserved better material.
“The Whale” is a 2022 drama directed by Darren Aronofsky and starring Brenda Fraser, Sadie Sink, Hong Chau and Ty Simpkins. It’s rated R for some language, some drug use and sexual content and has a 1 hour, 57 minutes runtime. It opened in select theaters Dec. 21. Lynn’s Grade: C.
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.