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Brendan Fraser

“THE WHALE” My rating: B- (Theaters)

117 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Yes, Brendan Fraser is terrific in “The Whale.” So terrific that his stellar performance accentuates the picture’s overall shortcomings.

The latest from director Darren Aranofsky (“Pi,” “Requiem for a Dream,” “Black Swan,” “The Wrestler”) is a claustrophobic pressure cooker of a drama.

Adapted by Samuel D. Hunter from his decade-old Drama Desk Award-winning play, “The Whale” unfolds almost exclusively in the living room of a suburban home occupied by Charlie, an immense blob of a man who survives on pizza and weighs so much it’s a struggle to stand up.

Charlie pays the rent by convening an on-line literature class, imparting his hard-earned wisdom about writing to college kids who have never laid eyes on him. Ashamed of being seen, he lies that his computer camera has gone haywire.

Over the course of the film Charlie will interact with several individuals.

The first of these is Liz (Hong Chau), a registered nurse and the sister of the man Charlie loved and lost. The compassionate but tough-loveish Liz is the closest thing he has to family or friends; she drops by almost daily to deliver food and observe Charlie’s physical deterioration. His blood pressure is off the charts, he wheezes with every breath, and Liz urges him, without success, to check into the hospital.

And there are unexpected guests.

Thomas (Ty Simpkins) is a young missionary from a nearby church — Charlie regards it as a cult — who drops by to proselytize and, despite Charlie’s rejection of his religious message keeps coming back.

Sadie Sink

Then there’s Charlies teenage daughter Ellie (“Stranger Things'” Sadie Sink), an angry young woman who hasn’t seen her father for a decade (not since he ran off with another man) and now observes his blubbery state with a jaundiced eye and a sharp tongue. Charlie is thrilled to see his offspring (Ellie’s mom cut him out of her life). He attempts to soften her up by noting that he has more than $100,000 in savings earmarked for her use.

Finally there’s a late appearance by Charlie’s ex, Mary (Samantha Morton), who is furious at the thought of a father/daughter reconciliation — not the least because she believes Ellie’s cynical snideness is outward manifestation of an evil soul (!!??!!).

With its single set and clockwork introduction of new characters, “The Whale” is more a filmed play than a fully cinematic experience.

Which is fine. My beef with the material is that the characters are more representative of points of view than of individuals, and their introductions into the story feel so carefully thought out and manipulative that there’s little or no sense of spontaneity. It all feels a little canned and preordained.

On the plus side, the story — and Fraser’s performance — humanizes the sort of individual who carries a boatload of societal shame and disapproval. “The Whale” suggests that Charlie wasn’t always morbidly obese, that he began binge eating after the death of his lover. Now in failing health, he’s desperate to rebuild bridges with his estranged family.

Despite a bulbous fat suit and layers of prosthetic jowls, Fraser uses his voice and expressive eyes to bring Charlie’s interior world to life. It’s an extraordinary performance, sad but knowing and leavened with bursts of self-deprecating humor.

| Robert W. Butler

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