A film review by Craig J. Koban August 30, 2011

THE BEAVER j
½ 

2011, PG-13, 91 mins.

Mel Gibson: Walter / Jodie Foster: Meredith / Anton Yelchin: Porter / Jennifer Lawrence: Norah / Cherry Jones: The VP

Directed by Jodie Foster / Written by Kyle Killen

THE BEAVER proves that you can have matchless performances that are completely undone by the overpowering incredulity of its screenplay.  

Some have commented that the Jodie Foster directed and acted film is a scathing black comedy, which is odd because there is very little humor in it.  Others have called it a searing and moving portrait of a deeply depressed man that finds unique outlets to deal with his feelings of worthlessness.  That too is odd, seeing as THE BEAVER doesn't offer much in terms of thoroughly analyzing the human condition, nor does it really dig deep into the psychology of its mentally fragile main character.   

I will say this, though: the film has an intoxicating hook (from a first screenplay by Kyle Killen) that, for the first few minutes, makes it immediately and obsessively watchable.  It wants to be a highly complex portrait of a lost soul that uses highly unorthodox means to turn his life successfully around so that he doesn't lose everything dear to him.  It also wants to deal with the suffering man’s family, showing how much they do care for him despite the fact that he is very obviously having a mental break from reality.  This is the stuff of ambitious motion picture dramas, to be sure, but where THE BEAVER really, really drops the ball is in how its premise never once – not for more than a fleeting second – feels believable.  As a result, all of the good elements of the film – like its stalwart and memorable performances and strong, low-key direction – feel squandered. 

Walter Black (Mel Gibson) is a deliriously miserable human being.  He is a successful man, however, and certainly has much to live for: he has a beautiful wife, two kids, and is the CEO of a national toy company.  Unfortunately, things are going south for him: His marriage to Meredith (Foster) is hitting rock bottom, his eldest son Porter (Anton Yelchin) fears of becoming him, and his company is on the verge of total economic collapse.  When he is not slumming around feeling incalculably depressed, and sleepy, Walter contemplates suicide.  When his wife has had enough, he leaves home and moves into a hotel.  He makes a couple of hopelessly botched suicide attempts while there and, during the pit of his deepest despair, he finds a dusty, dirty, and heavily worn beaver hand puppet.  He puts it on and then…miraculously…it speaks to him. 

Well…not really.  

Walter mimes the puppet and provides his voice (which sounds suspiciously like Gibson’s EDGE OF DARKNESS co-star, Ray Winstone, but never mind).  Let’s just say that Walter develops a serious multiple personality disorder during which he subverts his real voice and mindset and essentially becomes the puppet’s.  Everything he does and says is through the personality of the beaver, whether it be doing the most mundane (like sleeping and showering) to more weighty social situations, like interacting with his family and turning his failing company around from financial ruin.  Whatever the circumstance, the beaver becomes a form of radical therapy for Walter, but he becomes so rooted in his furry alter-ego that it becomes dangerously apparent that it just may become his predominant personality…forever. 

Um…okay…I need to get this out first: Regardless of what you may think of Gibson (especially in the wake of all of his deplorable public behavior in recent years), there should be no denying his titanic and immersive performance talent after seeing THE BEAVER.  It’s so deceptively easy to chastise Gibson’s private life to the point that it makes it difficult to acknowledge what a great actor he really is.  Just consider what he has to go through in the film: he has to plausibly relay a truly mentally deranged individual that finds stability and a new lease on life via a hand puppet.  It’s quite an astonishing and thankless tour de force work that not too many actors could pull off credibly without making it all look preposterous.  You gain an instantaneous sense of this man’s intense sorrow and mental detachment from reality.  You believe that Gibson’s Walter would do something nutty like use a puppet for therapy. 

The conundrum of the film, though, is that no other human character acts plausibly around this completely ape-shit crazy man.  You’d think that Meredith would instantly send Walter straight to the insane asylum within ten seconds of him showing up at her door and talking though his “new” voice, but it becomes a disbelieving howler to witness how the wife and so many people around him (his toy company execs, the media, and so forth) just kind of openly embrace Walter’s peculiar behavior.  Everyone – with the exception of Walter’s oldest son – just seem so exasperatingly inviting of Walter’s new “friend”, which basically zaps away any sense of dramatic believability.   I mean…this is…a guy…that…talks…through a…beaver puppet.    

It’s not that I don’t believe that a crazy man like Walter would not put on a puppet and develop dissociative personality issues, but what I am saying is that people around him respond in all manners unnatural.  Here’s another problem: there is very little development of Walter as a character at all pre-beaver-adornment.  It’s noble minded for a script to want to explore a fractured psyche, and Walter’s choice of “medicine” is indeed fascinating, but we don’t satisfyingly learn what got him to this point.  The film is very lean at just over 90 minutes, but it could have benefited from about 15-20 minutes more of backstory to flesh out Walter and make him more relatable.  In his current form, he’s almost a vague abstract; it’s hard to give a damn about his recovery because you don’t know what he was like before his mental illness.  It also does not help that the story awkwardly meanders in and out of another subplot involving his son Porter secretly writing high school term papers for fellow schoolmates for money and, in one instance, taking a job to pen the graduation speech of a attractive female student named Norah (the always natural and excellent Jennifer Lawrence).  I liked Yelchin and Lawrence together on screen and their story-within-the-story was sweetly compelling, but it never gels and feels balanced with Walter’s main story arc. 

Even when events in the film fail to ring with even modest authenticity, THE BEAVER also stumbles when diving into the convoluted nature of mental illness.  It rarely answers many simple questions: What really characterizes the relationship between Walter and his puppet master?  What is the dominant or legitimate personality?  Is it Walter or the beaver?  What makes a man as sick as Walter convert himself and his consciousness into a tattered puppet?  Is there really any value to using puppets as a valid form of cognitive therapy?  I believe that a tortured mind as messed up as Walter’s is not simply eased into normalcy by using something as easy as a puppet, but this film certainly does, which allows for it to neatly and conveniently segue into a heart-warming, audience-pleasing conclusion that’s almost a harder pill to swallow than Walter’s chosen treatment method. 

THE BEAVER reminded me of a considerably better film called LARS AND THE REAL GIRL, which was similar for how it told a story of a man on the verge of mental breakdown that too uses an inanimate object (that he thinks is animate within the recesses of his depressed mind) as tool to function and rehabilitate himself back into society.  Somehow, I just bought into that film’s equally peculiar premise, perhaps because there was more investment in the central characters and I cared more about them because the film’s script treated them with additional care and tact.  THE BEAVER’s personalities are more disapprovingly ill defined and its screenplay struggles to find a genuine sense of meaning.  Maybe “the beaver” is meant to be an allegory about how people deal with internal suffering, but the film’s follow through on that is unconvincingly conceptual.  There is a justifiably moving and endlessly compelling idea here at the heart of THE BEAVER with serious potential, but the film just seems to lose its way because of its almost head-shaking artificiality.  It emerges as a highly rare oddity: a believably acted, but unbelievably scripted drama. 

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