Brendan Fraser’s comeback is unforgettable

TORONTO — Brendan Fraser’s comeback role is as unexpected as it gets.

It’s transformative for the actor. Not only because he plays a 600-pound man stuck in his small rural Idaho apartment in The Whale, which just had its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, but also because of his wonderful tenderness.

Movie review

Running time: 117 minutes. Not yet rated. In theaters December 9th.

Fraser wasn’t always this sensitive. During the 53-year-old’s heyday in the 1990s and ’90s, starring in the films The Mummy, Monkeybone, and George of the Jungle, he had a comedy/action star swagger and a whole grid worth of energy . He sprinted, he screamed, he swung, he killed The Rock.

But his Charlie in The Whale, brilliantly directed by Darren Aronofsky, is quiet, thoughtful and lonely. And intensely moving. Almost couch bound, he makes a living teaching an online essay writing class with his laptop camera turned off so no one can see his face and body. He tells the pizza guy to leave the box outside the door. He lives in constant shame. Fraser always seems to have a tear in his eye.

In as Charlie "The whale," Brendan Fraser does some of the best work of his career.
Brendan Fraser does the best work of his career as Charlie on The Whale.
Courtesy of the Everett Collection

Charlie went into hiding and began gaining weight after the untimely death of his younger partner Alan. His ex-wife Mary (Samantha Morton) and his daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink) want nothing to do with him because he left them for his new husband. Now Charlie is all alone apart from a missionary visitor (Ty Simpkins) who urges the man to find God and a nurse friend named Liz (Hong Chau) who cares for him and begs the stubborn fellow to the hospital to no avail to go. She says Charile only has about a week to live.

A fine old trait that Fraser never gave up is his sense of childish wonder. As a grown action star, his characters had the wide eyes of children making exciting new discoveries. Charlie has the same twinkle when speaking of his teenage daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink), who loathes him and with whom he is desperately trying to reconnect while he is still alive. In these friendly attempts at a meaningful relationship, the actor does the best work of his long career.

There’s a plethora of reasons why this movie shouldn’t work. It’s based on Samuel D. Hunter’s (also screenwriter) excellent acting, and this kind of heightened material meant for the stage often flops on screen. Another theater-to-film adaptation at TIFF that year, Allelujah, failed miserably. And I imagine some outraged viewers will label Charlie – and Fraser’s casting – as exploiting obese people. It is not. At its core, The Whale is about grief and the search for love.

Be warned though, the experience can be extremely uncomfortable. There are tough, visceral scenes to watch – reminiscent to when Natalie Portman’s toenails started falling off in Black Swan. After all, Aronofsky doesn’t do “Bedazzled”.

Brendan Fraser has received awards including the TIFF Tribute Award for Performance.
Brendan Fraser has received awards including the TIFF Tribute Award for Performance.
Getty Images

However, the director and Fraser take difficult subjects and work on something deeper.

We never leave the tiny home, but Aronofsky keeps it ever-changing, mysterious, big, and cinematic. Not cheap. And while Hunter’s writing style is better suited to the stage (his “A Case For The Existence Of God” was last season’s best play), the director thrives on such exaggeration and style. It never comes across as dishonest.

Rob Simonsen’s foghorn-esque score, evoking a storm at sea (Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” stars in the film), also ups the ante.

Fraser, so good, takes what could be a joke, a shallow tragedy, or even a lecture on weight and infuses it with awesome humanity. His Charlie is a deeply relatable person who reminds us how much a single day can change the course of our lives. It’s a testament to storytelling that a character so different from so many moviegoers can so powerfully make us think about our own lives. Brendan Fraser’s comeback is unforgettable

Emma Bowman

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