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Dan Webster reviews " The Whale"

It’s not uncommon for actors to perform roles requiring them to wear more makeup than a junior-high prom queen. Or your average Kardashian.

Think of John Hurt in “The Elephant Man.” Or the actors who play the title characters in any of the various “Planet of the Apes” franchises. Charlize Theron even won a Best Actress Oscar in the serial-killer study “Monster” wearing enough makeup and dental prosthetics to make her virtually unrecognizable.

Now consider the mass of material that Brendan Fraser was required to wear in Darren Aronofsky’s movie “The Whale.” To portray the 600-pound man at the heart of the story, which screenwriter Samuel D. Hunter adapted from his own stage play, Fraser had to endure daily six-hour sessions to get equipped with some 300 pounds of sculpted silicon.

Here's the thing, though. Once you get accustomed to Fraser’s appearance – no mean feat because it’s a big change from the actor who once played a hunky “George of the Jungle” – what you’re left with is the best performance of Fraser’s career … not to mention one of the best acting performances of 2022.

Frazer plays Charlie, a man who teaches writing online but who hides his identity from his students. Which is ironic because what he preaches to them is the need to be honest in the essays he assigns them to write. Do as I say, he proclaims, without adding the obvious caveat: Clearly not as I am doing.

What gradually becomes clear is the reason for Charlie’s obesity. And his truth comes to light through the relationships he has, or in some cases develops, with his friend/personal nurse, Liz (played by Hong Chau), his estranged daughter Ellie (played by Sadie Sink), a young Christian missionary named Thomas (played by Ty Simpkins) and even by Charlie’s ex-wife Mary (the mother of Ellie, played by Samantha Morton).

It's a truth that’s tied to heartbreak, Charlie’s mostly, but something that affects the others, too. Liz’s brother was Charlie’s former lover, Ellie and Mary are the family he abandoned to be with that lover a full decade before. Thomas is the faith-based add-on who feels an obligation to help Charlie whom he recognizes is in serious straits.

The question Hunter and Aronofsky ask involves just what kind of help Charlie needs and whether he would want it anyway. What he wants, certainly, is redemption – but that is something that so often remains out of reach for all of us, but especially so for those all too desperate for it.

“The Whale” is shot mostly in Charlie’s apartment, with a couple of scenes set on his front porch. And the static feel resulting from this, along with the lengthy dialogues, is indicative of the film’s stage-bound source. It also represents an unusual shooting style for Aronofsky, whose films range from the surreal math-based thriller “Pi” through the psychological study “Black Swan” to the confounding domestic horror offering “Mother!”

Yet what all these films – not to mention Aronofsky’s religious tome “Noah,” his Micky Rourke feature “The Wrestler” and the drug-addled “Requiem for a Dream” – have in common are echoes of Charlie incessant, and likely vain, desire: a recognition that he is a better man than his past actions would indicate.

Not that everything in the film works. Thomas’ character feels little more than a cipher, a tool that Ellie uses for her own purpose. And what is the nature of that purpose? Charlie is more than willing to give his daughter the benefit of the doubt. But does she deserve it? The movie never makes this clear.

And then there’s that ending, one that might have worked fine on the stage but that feels just a little too magically realistic on film to fit the dramatic moments that have preceded it.

What remains, though, are the two central performances. By Chau (who stars also in the recent food-themed noir/horror flick “The Menu”) and, even more so, by Fraser – who underneath all that makeup gives Charlie a sense of profound sadness that may melt even the hardest of hearts among us.

For Spokane Public Radio, I’m Dan Webster.

“Movies 101” host Dan Webster writes about movies and more for