Film Reviews

The Beaver: Mad, but not Madcap

An earnest, intermittently droll dramedy about a manic-depressive toy manufacturer and his bewildered family, The Beaver is a parable that's not easily parsed. While director Jodie Foster fails to maintain a consistent tone, the movie's lopsided wobble is undeniably enhanced by her star Mel Gibson, or at least by the baggage he schleps into the proceedings.

Walter Black (Gibson) is first seen floating in the chlorinated limbo of his backyard swimming pool. Barely able to formulate a sentence, he's been diagnosed as "hopelessly depressed" and, once his exasperated wife (Foster) kicks him out of their Westchester digs, he's ineptly suicidal. As Walter trembles, drunk and disconsolate, on the ledge of his motel roof, the movie's mysterious Cockney-accented voiceover is revealed to be that of Walter's manic self—a ratty hand-puppet discovered in a dumpster that, once it starts talking to him, offers him a means to reinvent himself.

There's no attempt to make it seem that Walter can throw his voice; on the contrary, the camera tends to focus on Gibson's lips flapping as he brandishes the puppet he's dubbed The Beaver. Still, Kyle Killen's script elaborates on the ventriloquism theme with a subplot involving Walter's eldest son, Porter (Anton Yelchin); busy as a beaver furnishing term papers to order, this Ivy League-bound high school senior is hired by the school's smartest girl (Jennifer Lawrence) to ghostwrite her valedictorian address.

Speaking through his furry friend, Walter returns home. His younger son is delighted; his wife gets with the program once The Beaver explains that he's been prescribed by a shrink. Walter jogs and showers with the puppet; he also uses it to address his employees, inspiring them to mass-produce something called the "Mr. Beaver Wood-Cutting Kit." The puppet is even there for the movie's kinkiest (and most inadvertently funny) scene, as Gibson enacts some hot conjugal sex with the movie's perpetually harried-looking director.

Gibson gives Walter's manic jag suggestive verisimilitude—particularly after the wood-cutting kit becomes a runaway hit and he takes to the airwaves, appearing with the Beav on Good Morning America, riffing with Jon Stewart and interviewed by Terry Gross. Gibson may be no one's idea of a method actor, but his pleasure playing nut-jobs, most apparent in the comic thriller Conspiracy Theory, seems weirdly confessional.

Shot in autumn 2009, The Beaver was shelved when the monster from the Gibson id erupted last summer with revelations that he was verbally and physically abusing his girlfriend, and it has returned as something like a celluloid explanation. Thanks to this lurid prequel, The Beaver manages to be both exploitative and humanizing. Thanks to Gibson's convincing conviction, it goes surprisingly deep into madness before resolving itself in a nimbus of New Age platitudes.

Foster might have treated the material as an E.T.A. Hoffmann tale of demonic possession or a believe-it-or-not Oliver Sacks case history. Instead, she takes it at face value. Is The Beaver an allegory on acting? Directing? It's tempting to imagine Foster herself talking through the increasingly nasty puppet.

Instead, she takes the maternal role in The Beaver—allowing Gibson the fun of babbling on like a hyperactive 8-year-old—but she clearly identifies, having cited her own struggle with depression in flacking the movie. Perhaps that's the problem. Mel's character isn't on Prozac, but the movie is. Would that the direction were half as nutty as the script or as wacked-out as its star.

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