The love showered on Brendan Fraser out of film festivals inflates expectations for “The Whale” wildly out of proportion, in a movie based on a play that occurs almost entirely within a lone apartment. Weighted down not by its morbidly obese protagonist but rather its stick-thin supporting players, Fraser deserves praise for his buried-under-makeup performance, but that’s not enough to keep the movie afloat.
In a sense, the focus on a sad, lonely and self-destructive man has a good deal in common with director Darren Aronofsky’s 2008 movie “The Wrestler,” which also forced the main character to confront his own mortality.
Here, the focus is on Fraser’s Charlie, who is so large (the 600-pound figure discussed in press materials is never mentioned) that he wheezes and struggles to catch his breath and can only shuffle about using a walker. Unable to venture outside, he relies on food deliveries and a caring nurse (Hong Chau, clearing a low bar as the most appealing co-star) – who amusingly chides him for constantly apologizing to her – as his only lifelines to the outside world.
Teaching college literary courses online but hiding his appearance from his bored-looking students, Charlie has his hermit life interrupted by a missionary (Ty Simpkins), who happens to knock on his door at an indelicate moment, as Charlie is experiencing one of several dangerous episodes.
“I don’t go to hospitals,” Charlie tells him, which brings to mind the movie “Leaving Las Vegas,” in the sense that the central character hopelessly states at the outset that he has no intention of seeking to confront or address the condition that’s gradually killing him.
Still, Charlie has more than that on his mind, reaching out to the now-high-school-age daughter (“Stranger Things’” Sadie Sink), who he abandoned when she was child, clearly eager to make peace with the girl before it’s too late. Shocked by his size, he tells her of his weight, “I let it get out of control,” only later providing details regarding the tragedy that preceded that arc.
Even allowing for her legitimate grievance, the daughter joins a long line of badly written movie teens, seemingly devoid of any gears between rage and tears.
Adapted by Samuel D. Hunter from his play, “The Whale” actually derives its title from the book “Moby Dick,” although the convincing enormity of Charlie’s physique obviously provides another meaning. What the film doesn’t achieve is the sense of uplift that it seeks to find in a story that counts off the days as his health seems to worsen.
Film festivals can produce a kind of collective euphoria, but watching “The Whale,” it’s hard not to be baffled by the prolonged standing ovation that greeted the film in Venice, even allowing for the understandable appreciation associated with Fraser’s sort-of comeback – in a striking departure from his hunky “The Mummy” days – and the challenging logistics involved.
As poignant and heartbreaking as Charlie’s plight is, “The Whale” can’t transcend the line between theater and film. While it’s easy to root for Fraser to earn accolades, in the annual hunt for award-worthy movies, consider this another one that got away.
“The Whale” premieres in US theaters on December 9. It’s rated R.