With ‘The Whale,’ Brendan Fraser Hits his Mark

Brendan Fraser deserves an Oscar nomination. There’s something I never imagined writing. If you recall (and you are excused if you don’t), Mr. Fraser’s early acting career is noted for such ‘prestige’ films as Encino Man (1992), George of the Jungle (1997), Dudley Do-Right (1999), and Bedazzled (2000). And yes, I’m being a bit unfair with the films I chose to name, as he has delivered some solid performances along the way. However, nothing on his resume could have prepared us for what he delivers on screen in The Whale, the latest from director Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan, 2010).

Award-winning playwright Samuel D. Hunter adapted his own play for the big screen, and it’s one that will surely drag you down and pound your emotions, even as it mesmerizes you. We first hear Charlie’s (Fraser) soothing voice as he addresses the online college writing class he teaches. We see the students’ faces on his laptop, but Charlie’s square is blacked out. He explains the camera on his laptop is still “broken.” Class ends and Charlie’s friend Liz (a terrific Hong Chau, “Watchmen”) shows up to read his blood pressure at 238/134. Charlie is a massive human being, barely mobile, and nearing death.

Liz is also a nurse and tends to Charlie in a sense of loyalty and caring through their friendship. The origin of which we learn later in the story. Thomas (Ty Simpkins, Jurassic World, 2015), who says he’s a missionary from New Life Ministries, knocks on the door as Charlie is in medical distress. Liz treats Thomas as an intruder and demands he leaves, while Charlie remains civil to him.

Given his ticking clock, Charlie reaches out to his teenage daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink, “Stranger Things”). The two haven’t seen each other in the years since Charlie left for a new lover. To say that Ellie has pent-up rage and anger directed at her long-lost dad would be understating the situation. She blows into his apartment like a tornado, spewing venom toward Charlie. They do come to an arrangement that entices her to return to visit while he agrees to assist with her delinquent school assignments.

Almost the entirety of the story takes place in about 300 square feet of the upstairs apartment Charlie is confined to. The tight space adds tension to every interaction between the four characters, including Charlie’s ex-wife Mary (Samantha Morton, In America, one of my favorite forgotten gems from 20 years ago). Brendan Fraser uses his eyes to convey so many thoughts, even as we turn in disgust at his eating habits. An excellent score from Rob Simonsen and expert camera work from cinematographer Matthew Libatique complement the stunning performance from Fraser, and the numerous moments of intense tension and emotional turmoil.

There are only a few times throughout where the live stage source material sticks out, and the ending is handled beautifully, allowing us a respite from the emotional rollercoaster of the past two hours.