Brendan Fraser does his best with over-forced film

Author:
Category:



I’m of two minds about “The Whale.” I don’t like it; that’s one mind. Yet I love what it has done for its star, Brendan Fraser, a highly likely Oscar nominee come early 2023 and — as he has been since the early 1990s — a wonderful actor.

He’s best known, still, I suppose, for saving the “Mummy” franchise (alongside Rachel Weisz) from lousiness. That was a long time ago. Fraser, a big, graceful screen presence, did excellent work before the “Mummy” movies and after. Eventually, he fell out of favor and, forcibly, laid low for a lot of reasons. He’d gone public, without fanfare, with his account of being groped in 2003 by Hollywood Foreign Press Association (Golden Globes) president Philip Berk; he dealt with health issues. He went longer between assignments.

But he never went away.

Always, Fraser was a crafty and distinctively pixilated character actor stuck in the not-fake prosthetics of male beauty. He knew how to exploit hunk-dom for laughs, or for the dictates of an action picture. Now in his mid-50s, Fraser has continued his professional reinvention in earnest. In Steven Soderbergh’s Detroit crime story “No Sudden Move” (2021), there he was, squeezed into a too-small hat in the back seat of a ‘50s coupe as an underworld knucklehead, disarmingly witty, a little sad. For that part he answered the working actor’s mob cliché question — how do I make this tough guy a different sort of tough guy? — by bringing out traces of childlike vanity and vulnerability.

That sweetness is all over “The Whale,” in which Fraser takes the leading role. In a 300-pound fat suit, and considerable facial prosthetics, he plays Charlie, a 600-pound man near the end of an anguished personal campaign to eat his way to death.

He lives alone. Each journey from his lounger to the fridge requires a struggle with his walker, and puts more pressure on an already near-failure congestive heart.

Charlie has a rage-addicted teenage daughter (Sadie Sink), who never forgave him for leaving her mother (Samantha Morton) when he came out as gay. Charlie’s apparent only friend Liz (Hong Chau, a considerable asset here, as she is in “The Menu”) is a nurse. She brings fresh rounds of scrutiny, side-eye, tough love and meatball subs on cue.

Charlie is also visited by a dogged young missionary (Ty Simpkins) from something called the “New Life” church. He is eager to convert, but he seems to be hiding something.

Fraser’s character makes his living as an online writing teacher; terrified of showing his face, and body, to his virtual students, he teaches with the camera off. “Moby-Dick” provides the leitmotif for Charlie’s narrow, numbered days. The movie, following the blueprint of the widely produced 2012 play by Samuel D. Hunter, eventually reveals the novel’s personal meanings to Charlie.

I have read the play, though not seen it in production, and while limited knowledge is a dangerous thing, I can see how the right staging of this five-character, one-set parable of suffering, redemption and Christlike goodness could be effective and affecting. The movie, alas, adapted by Hunter, suffers from one of the stranger cases of directorial miscasting in recent years. Darren Aronofsky is faithful to the basic confines of the script; he opens up the action only in dreamlike flashes, so we’re basically at home, in the apartment, in close quarters, the whole way.

The main conflict deals with the prickly, uneasy reunion of Charlie and his daughter; the larger, religious conflict pits the missionary’s desire to “save” Charlie, while atheist Liz smells a rat. The material is often darkly comic, in relatively unsubtle ways, sometimes gently heartbreaking, and just as often ginned up in its interpersonal warfare. Directed with the wrong emphasis, the women in “The Whale” come off as shrill, angry harridans and straw adversaries until they see the light emanating from Charlie’s soul.

Aronofsky mistakes intensity for honesty, and the everyday details of this man’s life are delivered like anvils dropped on your feet. Everything is pitched at 11. Then again: In every scene, every moment, practically, Fraser strives for and often succeeds in finding something more than cheap pathos.

I suppose the extreme prosthetic makeover was unavoidable, or at least inevitable. Fraser makes Charlie a real, or at least real-adjacent, human being in tragically inhospitable circumstances. Vocally and physically, the actor’s breathing (strained, sporadic) and his way of receding into the prosthetic body becomes an exercise in character-building in the performance sense. Better, it doesn’t beg for approval or attention, certainly not the way the movie itself often does. As written and played here, Charlie’s lightness of spirit provides the saving grace.

That lightness of spirit is utterly alien to this director’s work. Aronofsky’s entire resume — good films (“Black Swan,” “Mother!”) and merely punishing ones (“Requiem for a Dream”) — is built on pile-driving melodrama. There’s so much built-in extremity and potential emotional exploitation in “The Whale,” the last thing a director needs to do is push it, or pull it.

Recap: I love what “The Whale” is doing for Fraser’s career. But not since John Wells blanded out the movie version of “August: Osage County” has a well-regarded play looked quite so at sea on screen.

“The Whale” — 2 stars (out of 4)

MPA rating: R (for language, some drug use and sexual content)

Running time: 1:57

How to watch: Premieres in theaters in New York and Los Angeles Dec. 9; Chicago premiere Dec. 21.

Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.

[email protected]

Twitter @phillipstribune

Big screen or home stream, takeout or dine-in, Tribune writers are here to steer you toward your next great experience. Sign up for your free weekly Eat. Watch. Do. newsletter here.





Source link

Read More
Related Articles