The movie is the latest from US director Darren Aronofsky, who won the top prize in Venice in 2008 for "The Wrestler" and is known for dark indie films such as "Black Swan" and "Requiem for a Dream".
Filed away in Hollywood's romcom archives, Brendan Fraser returns to screen, transformed into a morbidly obese man for "The Whale" which premiered at the Venice Film Festival. The comeback role made him an instant frontrunner for an Oscar.
One of the biggest names in Hollywood in the 1990s, Fraser starred in a string of family-friendly blockbusters as a muscle-bound hunk in films like "George of the Jungle" and "The Mummy", before his cinema career fell off in the late 2000s.
But his return as Charlie, a 250-kilo English professor trying to reconnect with his daughter, has drawn instant acclaim. As the credits rolled in the Sala Grande theatre, the audience gave the film a long-standing ovation while Fraser, on the balcony alongside his director and co-stars, wiped tears away.
"I needed to learn to absolutely move in a new way," Fraser told reporters in Venice on Sunday about wearing the prosthetics or "fat suit".
"I developed muscles I didn't know I had. I even felt a sense of vertigo at the end of the day when all the appliances were removed, as you do stepping off the boat here in Venice."
While the film already has pundits predicting Oscar nominations, Fraser is trying not to think about whether awards are in his future.
The movie is the latest from US director Darren Aronofsky, who won the top prize, the Golden Lion, in Venice in 2008 for "The Wrestler", and is known for dark indie films such as "Black Swan" and "Requiem for a Dream".
"The Whale", however, has a profoundly optimistic attitude.
The Whale concludes with an emotional wallop I was completely unprepared for. Fraser is remarkably vulnerable. It’s also very stagey (it’s based on a play) and lacks the electric visual jolt I’ve come to expect from Aronofsky. #VeniceFilmFestival pic.twitter.com/yGVBX09c1r— Chris Vognar (@chrisvognar) September 4, 2022
A 'hopeful' Aronofsky movie?
As the story unfolds, the reasons for Charlie's obesity emerge — rooted in trauma linked to his sexuality and religion — but he never allows them to darken his view of the world.
"Charlie is by far the most heroic man I've ever played," Fraser said. "His superpower is to see the good in others and bring that out in them."
Aronofsky said this was "the most important message to put out in the world".
"Everyone's leaning into the cynicism and darkness and giving up hope, and it's exactly what we don't need right now. We have to lean into (the idea that) underneath it all, we really do care about each other," the 53-year-old director said.
While the film drew some criticism for being a "soupy melodrama", in the words of Screen Daily, there was near-unanimous praise for Fraser's performance.
"The Brendanaissance is on! Fraser gives a towering performance, in every sense of the word," wrote IndieWire.
Deadline said "a never-better" Fraser is now "at the front of the Best Actor race".
This is never going to be a stan account (unless I change my name to Stan Account, in which case I guess it would be a Stan Account account), but if it were it would be a stan account for Brendan Fraser. pic.twitter.com/AHFYoBlghM— Benjamin Dreyer (@BCDreyer) September 4, 2022
Not casting an obese person
There have been some grumblings in the US press and social media about whether an obese person should have been cast in the role. Though Fraser did gain weight for the movie, the morbid obesity is represented by prosthetics, make-up and editing.
Aronofsky vividly remembers reading The New York Times review of Samuel D Hunter’s play “The Whale”, going out to see it, and knowing he had to meet the writer.
“It took me 10 years to make this movie and that’s because it took me 10 years to cast,” Aronofsky said.
“Casting Charlie was a huge challenge. I considered everyone. Every single movie star on the planet. But none of it really clicked. ... It didn’t move me. It didn’t feel right.”
Aronofsky said, "Then, a couple years ago, I caught a trailer for a Brazilian movie, kinda low budget. Brendan had a part in it and a lightbulb went off."
Hunter, who helped adapt it for the screen, said, "I wrote this character from a very personal place. I have a history of self-medicating with food. I was a gay kid in a fundamentalist religious high school," he said in Venice.
"I was afraid to write it. The only way I could do it was write it from a place of love and empathy ... I wanted him to be a lighthouse in a dark sea."