‘The Beaver’: Not enough to chew on

May 4, 2011


There obviously is more to “The Beaver” than its screwy concept and oddball script.

The elephant in the room isn’t that beaver puppet on Mel Gibson’s hand – it’s Gibson himself, in his second film role since his career imploded in a spate of headlines about drunk driving, bigotry and other scurrilous behavior.

“The Beaver” is in the same sort of soup as Woody Allen’s “Husbands and Wives,” the film he released in fall 1992, just after la scandale Soon-yi dominated headlines the previous August. How do you review the movie and not deal with the personal issues as well?

Because an artist’s work is not the same as his life. You can’t honestly judge a movie if you’re filtering it through a lens of disapproval about the creator’s or star’s life.

Two big differences, of course: Woody Allen did something that a lot of people do (strayed from his relationship, although, yes, he did it with his partner’s adopted daughter), where Mel Gibson expressed hateful thoughts that many people find repulsive.

And Woody Allen kept working. Gibson, however, has only been in one film (“Edge of Darkness”) since his various public declarations of anti-Semitism and secretly recorded phone calls expressing racism. So “The Beaver” seems to have a lot more riding on it.

Directed by Jodie Foster from a script by Kyle Killen, “The Beaver” is an oddball film that is neither as funny (or weird) as you’d hope nor as serious or profound as it seems to think. It’s actually about half a good movie, until it takes a fatal wrong turn into solemnity and mawkishness.

Gibson plays Walter Black, who is introduced to us as a man in a downward spiral – most of which has to do with what obviously is a case of clinical depression. His perpetually doomy countenance has finally convinced his wife, Meredith (Foster), to throw him out. Meanwhile, he’s useless at work at the toy company his father started, which he’s driven into the toilet.

So one night he tries to kill himself, a couple of times, unsuccessfully. But the last attempt puts him face to face with a discarded hand-puppet of a beaver. He puts the puppet on – and it starts to talk to him (in a gravelly voice with an Australian accent). And it tells him to cheer up.

Of course, he’s doing the talking; this isn’t an excursion into the supernatural or the just plain wacky. Rather, it’s about coping mechanisms: Walter realizes that, if he can just use the beaver as the buffer between himself and the world, he might actually be able to face life again.

So he starts handing out cards identifying the toy as “a prescription puppet,” prescribed by his therapist. And suddenly his life seems to turn around.

Except for one small factor: the puppet. His wife and his friends eventually tire of the device and begin to voice concern that Walter himself is avoiding actual human contact.

To be honest, I don’t know where Killen might have gone from there. Where the script does go, however, is mostly a dwindling of energy and story, as Walter once more begins to suffer from the depression he has kept at bay.

Depression, obviously, is a serious issue, one that can’t be solved with hugs and understanding. “The Beaver,” however, doesn’t really want to focus on mental illness; yet its actual story doesn’t really go anywhere – and can’t seem to find a way to give the beaver a real life of its own. You need something either much broader or more pointed and edgy than Killen’s script.

Still, Gibson gives an affecting performance, capturing the sense of uncontrolled free fall this man feels his life has become. Foster is his equal, as the wife who has given up hope – and then finds a possibility of revival in an unlikely source. Anton Yelchin, on the other hand, as Walter’s disaffected son, has little to work with and so plays a teen who is alternately a huckster and a petulant brat. Jennifer Lawrence is good as the valedictorian who hires him to ghostwrite her commencement speech for her.

“The Beaver” is a curiosity, to be sure, but not much of a comeback for Mel Gibson. At this point, it’s hard to know if the ever-fickle and increasingly youthful audience has any residual fondness for an actor who was at his peak 15 years ago.

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