Brendan Fraser's "comeback movie" is a finely-acted character drama given unusually restrained direction from Darren Aronofsky. Wearing pounds of convincing fat makeup, Fraser plays Charlie, a morbidly obese junior college professor who has spent years overeating as a means of coping with the death of his boyfriend. When his friend/nurse Liz (Hong Chau, excellent) informs him that he is suffering from congestive heart failure and has just days to live unless he goes to a hospital, Charlie decides to stay put in his Moscow, Idaho apartment instead, for reasons that slowly become apparent.
If The Whale seems stagy – just five characters in one location, with plenty of expository dialogue – it's because it is adapted by Samuel D. Hunter from his own 2012 play. (Aronofsky inexplicably sets the drama in March 2016; the Republican primary plays on TV in the background.) Yet Aronofsky shoots it like real cinema, not trying to "open it up" for the big screen but knowing – with help from editor Andrew Weisblum – when a closeup or insert shot can tell us something that a stage presentation couldn't.
Fraser's inherent likability works perfectly here: Charlie may be grotesque to look at, but the actor's sweetness makes him watchable and human. It's spot-on casting and Fraser deserves all the accolades he's been receiving.
The Whale isn't perfect: a Christian missionary (Ty Simpkins) who impedes upon Charlie's life is a somewhat superfluous character whose enduring presence – he comes back to the apartment nearly every day – feels particularly theatrical, especially when his lengthy third act monologue attempts to wrest our attention away from the main story. And after all that, he ultimately serves only as a rote symbol of homophobia – a target of Samuel D. Hunter's ire. But it's a small quibble. The Whale is otherwise very good filmed theater with a very good cast and sensitive direction from a filmmaker whose work I usually find overwrought.