Review: Brendan Fraser hooks Oscar bait in Darren Aronofsky’s obesity film ‘The Whale’

WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'The Whale'

Hit or miss, Darren Aronofsky remains one of our most darkly fascinating filmmakers.

Between his bizarre Biblical misfires, such as “Noah” (2014) and “mother!” (2017), he has given us at least three masterpieces in “Requiem for a Dream” (2000), “The Wrestler” (2008) and “Black Swan” (2010), gritty films about addiction: to drugs, to pain, to ballet.

Now he tackles a man’s addiction to food in “The Whale,” which could be considered Oscar bait on a fat-suit hook, cast by a manipulative angler with tons of cinematic chum in the water. That is, until you see the deeply human performance of Brendan Fraser, who is parting the waves to make a serious swim toward the Oscars in a welcome comeback.

Adapted by Samuel Hunter from his own play, the film follows a reclusive, 600-pound English professor named Charlie, who teaches remote classes on his laptop from his couch. It’s his only joy in life, spending the rest of his days binge eating, masturbating and attempting to reconnect with his estranged teenage daughter, who lives with his ex-wife.

This is Fraser like you’ve never seen him before, a far cry from his matinee idol days in the ’90s when “Encino Man” (1992), “George of the Jungle” (1997) and “The Mummy” (1999) were a fun diversion from obesity dramas like “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?” (1993).

Now, after years of relative obscurity, Fraser returns with the type of performance that often wins Oscars for its extreme makeover (shout out to digital makeup artist Adrien Morot). Lazy voters think, “He gained weight; give him the prize,” but thankfully, Fraser is so authentic that we forget we’re watching a movie and think we’re watching a real soul.

Charlie wasn’t always this way; his gluttony is fueled by grief, articulated by his devoted caretaker Liz (Hong Chau, “The Menu”). We won’t spoil her relation to Charlie, but the revelation packs a wallop. It helps to explain why she’s simultaneously his nurse and enabler, taking his blood pressure one moment, then bringing him sloppy meatball subs.

She’s far more understanding than his resentful daughter Ellie, played with fury by Sadie Sink (“Stranger Things”) as the brattiest teenager ever, mocking her dad’s attempt at reconnecting after being an absent father. If the film feels too mean-spirited by half, it’s because of her absolutely brutal behavior, sinking to new lows with each passing scene.

At one point, she’s actually called “evil” by her single mother, Mary, played by Samantha Morton, who you’ll remember as the pre-cog Agatha in “Minority Report” (2002). Morton only appears in one scene in “The Whale,” but she goes for broke, pacing around the room, drinking liquor and airing her grievances at Charlie for ruining their marriage.

Rounding out the cast is Ty Simpkins (“Insidious”) as the evangelical Thomas, who knocks on the door professing the Word of Jesus Christ. His association with the local New Life church conjures up bad memories for Charlie, but Thomas won’t take no for an answer — reading Bible verses, fetching things for Charlie and even spilling a secret of his own.

Set entirely in Charlie’s apartment, you can tell that the script is based on a play. It’s refreshing to see a single-location drama fueled by dialogue (similar to Sarah Polley’s “Women Talking”), although the spacious interior of Charlie’s home looks more like an Idaho rancher. The first exterior shot is jarring as we realize it’s a second-story apartment.

The outdoor staircases make it virtually impossible for Charlie to leave his apartment; his balcony gets more foot traffic from Dan The Pizza Man (Sathya Sridharan). The shock on his face at finally seeing Charlie’s obesity is truly heartbreaking, reinforcing why Charlie doesn’t turn his laptop camera on when teaching his English classes via headset.

He’s scared what his students might think and doesn’t want to distract them from the literary themes. You could say the same about Aronofsky’s film, as its title is both a reference to Charlie’s obesity and Herman Melville’s novel “Moby Dick.” In fact, Charlie routinely calms himself by reading his favorite term paper, laminated for safe keeping.

“My favorite parts are when the author goes into detail about the whale,” the term paper reads. “You can tell that he’s distracting himself from his own sad story.”

In these profound moments, the film lifts off the ground to earn a Golden Lion nod at the Venice Film Fest, but I’m curious how mainstream viewers will gauge its tone in an era of body positivity. Is the film as mean-spirited as Charlie’s daughter with a gross-out montage of gluttony? How will a morbidly obese America react to a film about morbid obesity?

It might be hard to look in the mirror, but “The Whale” will leave you blubbering.

4 stars

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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