Looking for some dark comedy? In the opening scene of The Whale, Charlie (Brendan Fraser) clutches his chest in pain while jerking off to homoerotic porn. He hears a knock on the door and beckons in a deceptively angelic looking missionary for the New Life Church. The young missionary wants to call 911. Charlie forbids it and instead asks the flummoxed young man to read aloud a student essay about Herman Melville and Moby Dick. He reads, “I felt saddest when I read the boring chapters that were only descriptions of whales because I knew the author was only trying to save us from his own sad story.” Listening to the essay works like magic. Or like nitroglycerin. His angina disappears.
Sylvia Plath described Moby Dick as a tale about “turning a monster into light and heat.” Charlie appears as a 600 pound monster.. He has been addicted to food and eating himself to death, trying to work through the grief and loneliness that has consumed his life since his lover, Alan, committed suicide. In the movie, he weighs 600 pounds, binge eats chocolate and pizza and meatball subs and fried chicken. Yet somehow, through Fraser’s remarkable story, we see the gentle sufferer who is encased in all that fat. As the movie goes on, we realize the wisdom of Bob Dylan's appreciation of Melville. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech he says of Melville’s writing,“
We see only the surface of things. We can interpret what lies below any way we see fit. All visible objects are but pasteboard masks.”
Playwright Samuel D. Hunter, like Melville, explores the connection between obsession and failure. Charlie, like the central character of Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” would rather die than compromise.
Every character in The Whale is an addict – to food, alcohol, tobacco, religion, weed, cruelty or some combination. Underlying all of these addictions is the pain that comes from their ineradicable empathy. Each character comes to know and forgive another. Charlie admires his daughter even though she finds him disgusting and posts humiliating pictures of him on the internet. Charlies’ ex-wife finds empathy for the man who stole Charlie from her. Charlie’s friend Liz, his lover’s sister, continues to care for him even as he lies to her. In the last scene, as he is once again trying to die, Charlie asks the central question of the drama, “Do you ever get the feeling that people are incapable of not caring?”
Each character feels the urge to save Charlie by calling 911. Charlie resists, claiming that he cannot afford medical care. He is living on the edge with no health insurance. More importantly, Charlie could likely not be saved by medical intervention. He is too far gone. He also knows what he would face if he went to the hospital.
Doctors are notoriously disrespectful of people with disabilities. One recent study interviewed doctors. A common attitude was, “You need a lot more care than I can provide so I am not the doctor for you.” Obese patients have trouble finding appropriate care because doctors are systematically biased against such patients. Stigma also affects the care of gay people. Charlie is all three. He is the white whale, struggling to survive, knowing he cannot, and somehow hoping that he can be seen through his pasteboard mask.