When two teenagers dug up the Cro-Magnon that time forgot in 1992’s Encino Man, the biggest surprise was how quickly evolution had gotten around to producing someone who resembled Brendan Fraser. In his prime, the Indiana-grown Fraser looked like what back in the day would have been called a “matinee idol,” which made him perfect casting for the retro-matinee blockbuster The Mummy and also inevitably placed him on People magazine’s Most Beautiful list. If he didn’t already have an instinct for it, Fraser learned early and quickly what matinee idols from Cary Grant to George Clooney have learned over the history of movies, which is that, if you’re going to be that good-looking, you’d better have a sense of humor about yourself. “Do you know what’s wrong with you?” Audrey Hepburn asks Grant in Charade, providing her own answer—“Nothing”—which sums up the immediate dilemma of a man considered too perfect to be interesting.
In Fraser’s case, he has had to cope with being beautiful and then not being beautiful, or—in The Whale, his triumphant comeback—turning himself into what most people will regard as grotesque. That’s a harsh word in these woke times when The Whale already has been accused by some of being “fatphobic,” but denying it misses the point of the main character’s despair and self-disgust; a remote-learning lit teacher who abandoned his family for a male lover, he has since imprisoned himself in a 600-pound body.
Fraser’s performance as Charlie, who knows his chances of redemption in the eyes of his estranged daughter grow slimmer with each passing minute, is a tour de force that will startle even audiences familiar with the actor’s dramatic chops at the outset of his career. Notwithstanding the salutary self-humor of Encino Man, The Mummy, and the latter’s two sequels, Fraser more than held his own opposite Ian McKellen and Lynn Redgrave in 1998’s Gods and Monsters before gracefully stealing from Michael Caine 2002’s underappreciated The Quiet American.
Fraser’s performance in the film is a tour de force.
Over the past decade or two, however, something odd happened to Fraser, as careers go. The former matinee idol increasingly found himself a character actor in supporting roles on TV miniseries like Trust and The Affair and, most recently, Steven Soderbergh’s No Sudden Move on HBO Max, when he wasn’t struggling not to flame out altogether. Derailed by a ruinous divorce settlement, the death of his mother, the trauma of a sexual assault literally at the hand of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s ex-president, not to mention aging and weight gain and an array of surgeries on his back and knees and vocal cords, almost certainly Fraser brings to The Whale enough lived-in dejection and defeat and maybe even a barely determined self-loathing to inform the film. Without trivializing for a moment what someone like Charlie goes through, the movie in no small part has become perceived as something of an unwitting metaphor for its leading man’s own recent experiences. In other words, as surely as Charlie resolutely raises his 600 pounds just to walk several steps across a room, The Whale is Fraser’s comeback.
The Whale is as fitfully powerful as you might imagine, and if it displays some of the claustrophobia of Samuel D. Hunter’s acclaimed stage play before he adapted it for the screen, director Darren Aronofsky has made the most of it in a story where Charlie’s sense of claustrophobia is no farther away than his own physical self. And if some of the contrivances of such an adaptation are apparent, the small ensemble cast overcomes them with varying success: having the least to work with as Charlie’s ex, Samantha Morton is predictably great anyway; and, in particular, Hong Chau—notable over recent years in Inherent Vice, Downsizing, and TV’s Watchmen—is a standout as Charlie’s one true friend, equal parts compassion and exasperated fury.
That said, of course the movie belongs to Fraser, who’s equal parts fatalism and towering fortitude, playing a man whose good heart may not be good enough to withstand the weight of a regretful life. It’s a comeback story that, come March, may call for an Oscar to the actor that time forgot and then remembered.
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This article appears in the December 2022 issue of Los Angeles magazine