The Whale review: Brendan Fraser lives up to the hype in emotional drama

The actor's career resurgence is as good as you’ve heard, so much so the rest of The Whale has to keep up.

Brendan Fraser in The Whale
(Image: © A24)

What to Watch Verdict

An incredible performance from Brendan Fraser is the main attraction, while the rest of the movie is a bit of a mixed (but generally positive) bag.

Pros

  • +

    Brendan Fraser's performances lives up to the hype

  • +

    A number of moments will wreck you emotionally

  • +

    The craftmanship is impeccable

Cons

  • -

    Fraser's performance can overshadow the rest of the movie

  • -

    Struggles to shake loose of its stage roots

  • -

    Missing Aronofsky's usual vibrancy

The fall of 2022 has been the season of Brendan Fraser as a result of what many have been calling his comeback role in The Whale. After screening at numerous film festivals and Fraser being the subject of many a profile piece, you'd be hard-pressed to not have heard about the 1990s star's career-resurgent performance that has people predicting Oscars. That may lead some to wonder if it all could possibly live up to the hype?

Simply put, yes, Fraser gives a career-best performance, owning this deeply emotional story from beginning to end. So much so that the rest of The Whale is often lost in his shadow.

It's not that the rest of The Whale is a bad movie, it's pretty good. In fact, the more you look back to it, there are a number of elements you have to give a ton of credit to for helping create the environment that enhances Fraser's portrayal. However, Fraser is who you'll be talking about when the credits roll.

The Whale is based on a play by Samuel D. Hunter, who wrote the script for the movie adaptation. The story centers on Charlie (Fraser), a severely overweight English teacher unable to leave his apartment, helped by friend and nurse, Liz (Hong Chau). Someone who constantly tells his students to write honestly, Charlie determines that it is time to try and reconnect with estranged daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink). Ty Simpkins also stars as a young missionary determined to try and save Charlie, while Samantha Morton plays Charlie's ex-wife and Ellie's mother.

The script and the rhythm of the story have a hard time breaking away from its stage roots. Almost every scene is just two people talking, perhaps with the occasional third. The scenes are interesting enough, but after a while it feels rather routine. You think with Darren Aronofsky on board as the director these scenes would feel a bit more charged and vibrant in their telling.

Aronofsky is best known for big, almost bombastic movies like Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, Black Swan and Mother! and The Wrestler, the latter of which is probably his closest previous entry to The Whale, have a dynamism to them that feels absent from his latest work. Even Noah, which felt like his previous outlier, had the incredible creation sequence that stood out. 

The one scene in The Whale that doesn't feel like it was just a recreation of what would have happened on stage is a dark moment for Charlie toward the end of the movie that we won't spoil here, but is more reminiscent of Aronofsky's work that often centers on different kind of unhealthy obsessions. 

Perhaps The Whale marks some kind of evolution for Aronofsky, but at least right now it does not feel like a quintessential Aronofsky movie.

Save for perhaps the detail in recreating Charlie's situation that is absolutely on point for the director. Much has been made of the prosthetic suit that Fraser wore to appear as Charlie (created by Adrien Morot), but it's definitely worth recognizing some of the other below-the-line artists as well. In particular, Mark Friedberg and Robert Pyzocha's production design of Charlie's apartment, which the closer you look portrays how Charlie has not just let himself go, but his entire environment.

But again, all things come back to Brendan Fraser. The actor is stunning as Charlie, an incredibly kind soul that is reminiscent of the good guy characters that helped make Fraser a star in the early part of his career. He'll almost assuredly make you break down with a number of emotional gut punches. Fraser is without a doubt on his way to a Best Actor nomination for The Whale.

Hong Chau in The Whale

Hong Chau in The Whale (Image credit: A24)

Of his supporting cast, the standout is Hong Chau (The Menu, Watchmen) as Charlie's friend and caregiver, Liz, who has a couple of knock out scenes. Sadie Sink (Stranger Things) and Ty Simpkins (Jurassic World) are solid, but they're characters feel undercooked, while Samantha Morton (The Walking Dead) comes in, gives a typically reliable performance and then leaves.

The Whale has been built as an emotional powerhouse and career renaissance from Fraser. On that it 100% delivers. However, while there's more to find and enjoy in the movie, it doesn't immediately grab you, which probably keeps The Whale from the year's best.

You can watch The Whale exclusively in movie theaters in the US. It comes to the UK February 3. 

Michael Balderston is a DC-based entertainment and assistant managing editor for What to Watch, who has previously written about the TV and movies with TV Technology, Awards Circuit and regional publications. Spending most of his time watching new movies at the theater or classics on TCM, some of Michael's favorite movies include Casablanca, Moulin Rouge!, Silence of the Lambs, Children of Men, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest and Star Wars. On the TV side he enjoys Peaky Blinders, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Saturday Night Live, Only Murders in the Building and is always up for a Seinfeld rerun. Follow on Letterboxd (opens in new tab).