The Whale Review: Brendan Fraser Makes A Hard Watch Worth It

We see dimensions of [Brendan Fraser] we’ve never had the opportunity to see before in The Whale, and it’s the best he’s ever been...

Brendan Fraser in The Whale
(Image: © A24)

As countless movies have shown us, we all love a great comeback story. Counterbalancing the disappointment that comes when an individual fails to live up to or take advantage of their potential, their successful return is an affirmation that talents can fade, but also resurge. This is the magic of the Brenaissance. Millennials grew up on the films of Brendan Fraser – from School Ties, to Airheads, to George Of The Jungle, to The Mummy – and after a few years out of the spotlight, he’s now being waved excitedly back into it as the world remembers what he can do at the top of his game.

Audiences have missed his charisma and goofy charm on the big screen. He’s an enchanting performer, and that’s accentuated in Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale: a film that has the actor serving as a powerful, bright light in a dark pool of despair.

Of course, that Aronofsky would create something you wouldn’t describe as a pleasant movie-going experience is hardly surprising. Whether it’s the metaphorical horrors of climate change in mother!, the literal horrors of drug abuse in Requiem For A Dream, or the spinning descent into madness that is Black Swan, his movies are emotional endurance trials that never flinch from their subject matter. In that respect, The Whale is very much on brand, as we are locked in a small apartment with a 600-pound man who is on the verge of death from congestive heart failure, but while it’s notably buoyed by its star’s natural sparkle, the movie is also a harsh watch that is rooted in a questionable perspective.

Brendan Fraser plays Charlie, an English teacher who hosts classes remotely and begins the film barely surviving a cardiac episode. His closest friend, Liz (Hong Chau), who happens to be a nurse, warns him that he is going to die if he doesn’t go to the hospital, but Charlie explains that he has neither health insurance nor the money to pay for the medical bills. Accepting his fate and resigning himself to death, he strives to find some closure in his life by reconnecting with his estranged daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink).

In the days that follow, Charlie bribes Ellie to spend time with him in exchange for doing her English homework so that she doesn’t fail out of school, and he gets regular visits from a religious missionary (Ty Simpkins) who believes that he is meant to “save” the protagonist. Through these encounters and time with Liz, he confronts his life’s hard choices and the devastating loss of the love of his life.

Heavy and depressing as The Whale is, Brendan Fraser’s captivating and powerful performance lifts your heart.

The Whale is based on the play of the same name by Samuel D. Hunter, and if that’s something you don’t know before the film stars, it’s something that becomes very obvious as you watch. Save for a couple extremely brief moments and some ventures out on to the porch, the action is a lot like Charlie in that it is confined to the character’s dingy, messy, yellowed home. What prevents the movie from feeling like a noxious trap, however, is what Brendan Fraser can do and the lightness that he has as a performer. As dark and dire as the character study gets, and as off-putting as he is meant to be presented, Charlie has his own kind of irrepressible optimism that is magnetic through the misery.

While the protagonist may be on the verge of death, his passion and love is what keeps him alive, and keeps that front and center. When Charlie has Ellie write something for him in notebook, he doesn’t get upset that she comments on the smell of the apartment or that she hates everyone; he giggles when he discovers that what she is written is in the structure of a haiku. His life is portrayed as unpleasant and gross, but Fraser provides the work with a special effervescence that lets us see the humanity of the man we don’t see in the filmmaking. In a lot of ugliness, his love of the written word is beautiful, and that love is fully registered through his performance.

Obviously there is remarkable sadness as well, and the range showcased by the actor is phenomenal and heartbreaking. Charlie is motivated through his teaching and his desire to see his daughter have a good life, but he is also trapped in a state of mourning for the man that he loved, and Brendan Fraser makes the pain real and palpable. We see dimensions of the actor we’ve never had the opportunity to see before in The Whale, and it’s the best he’s ever been – and hopefully it’s one of many great performances still to come from his rejuvenated career.

Fatphobia criticisms against The Whale are justified with its mixed perspective of horror and intense pity.

Powerful and emotionally rich as Fraser’s performance is, however, the film does have a problematic viewpoint. While it might be a step to far to call it exploitative (in the sense of the film trying to elicit shock), the movie does have a way of stripping away Charlie’s personhood as he is rendered as a kind of pitiful creature that other characters either look on as a soul in need of saving or a disgusting horror. On a cold, technical level, the work is impressive, as the physical transformation the actor undergoes is startlingly realistic, but its portrayal of obesity will justifiably upset some people.

The Whale on the whole is going to earn a divisive response – again, let’s not forget that this is from the same filmmaker whose last movie had the distinction of earning an “F” grade from CinemaScore. Many are going to hate it for the bad taste it leaves in one’s mouth, but it also creates tremendous possibilities for Brendan Fraser back on the big screen, and that and what he does here as Charlie is worthy of appreciation.

Eric Eisenberg
Assistant Managing Editor

Eric Eisenberg is the Assistant Managing Editor at CinemaBlend. After graduating Boston University and earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism, he took a part-time job as a staff writer for CinemaBlend, and after six months was offered the opportunity to move to Los Angeles and take on a newly created West Coast Editor position. Over a decade later, he's continuing to advance his interests and expertise. In addition to conducting filmmaker interviews and contributing to the news and feature content of the site, Eric also oversees the Movie Reviews section, writes the the weekend box office report (published Sundays), and is the site's resident Stephen King expert. He has two King-related columns.