‘The Whale’ review: Brendan Fraser’s comeback is shocking and 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 who can’t leave his small rural Idaho apartment in “The Whale,” which just had its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, but also due to his wonderful tenderness. 

Fraser wasn’t always so sensitive. In the 53-year-old’s prime during the 1990s and aughts, when he starred in “The Mummy” movies, “Monkeybone” and “George of the Jungle,” he had a comedy/action star swagger and an entire power grid’s worth of energy. He sprinted, he screamed, he swung, he slayed The Rock.

But his Charlie in “The Whale,” superbly directed by Darren Aronofsky, is quiet, contemplative and lonely. And intensely moving. Almost couch-bound, he makes a living teaching an online essay writing course with his laptop camera turned off so no one will see his face and body. He tells the pizza delivery guy to leave the box outside the door. He lives in constant shame. Fraser seemingly always has a tear in his eye.

Charlie hid himself away and began gaining weight after the untimely death of his younger partner, Alan. His ex-wife Mary (Samantha Morton) and daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink) want nothing to do with him because he left them for his new man. Now, Charlie is all alone save for a missionary visitor (Ty Simpkins) who pushes the man to find God and a nurse friend named Liz (Hong Chau), who takes care of him and fruitlessly begs the stubborn guy to go to the hospital. She says Charile only has about a week to live.

A lovely old quality that Fraser has not abandoned whatsoever is his sense of childlike wonder. As an adult action star, his characters had the wide eyes of kids making exciting new discoveries. Charlie has that same twinkle when he speaks of his teen daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink), who loathes him and whom he desperately tries to reconnect with while he’s still alive. It’s in those kind attempts at a meaningful relationship that the actor does the finest work of his long career.

There is an abundance of reasons why this movie should not work. It’s based on Samuel D. Hunter’s (also the screenwriter) excellent play, and this sort of heightened material meant for the stage often flops onscreen. Another theater-to-film adaptation at TIFF this year, “Allelujah,” failed big-time. And, I imagine, some outraged viewers will call Charlie — and Fraser’s casting — exploitative of overweight people. It isn’t. At its core, “The Whale” is about grief and the search for love.

Still, be warned, the experience can be an extremely uncomfortable one. There are tough, visceral scenes to watch — reminiscent of when Natalie Portman’s toenails started to fall off in “Black Swan.” Aronofsky, after all, doesn’t do “Bedazzled.”

However, the director and Fraser take difficult subject matter and work into something profound.

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

Rob Simonsen’s fog-horn-like score evoking a storm at sea (Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” plays a major part in the movie) also ups the ante.

Fraser, so good, takes what could be a joke, a flat tragedy, or even a lecture about weight and imbues it with gorgeous humanity. His Charlie is a deeply relatable person, who reminds us how significantly a single day can alter the course of our lives. It’s a testament to the storytelling that a character so different from so many moviegoers can make us so powerfully contemplate our own lives. 

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