A film review by Craig J. Koban August 30, 2011
2011, PG-13, 91 mins.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.