Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (August 22, 2011)
Desperately in need of a comeback after his real-life escapades caused him to become tabloid fodder, Mel Gibson returns with an unusual project. Helmed by his friend and old Maverick co-star Jodie Foster, The Beaver focuses on Walter Black (Gibson), a middle-aged man mired in the depths of depression. This harpoons his home life and his family toy business.
When Walter shows no signs of improvement – and apparently resists attempts at treatment – his wife Meredith (Foster) acquires a separation and he moves into a cheap motel. After he cleans out his car trunk – so he can load up with the booze he uses to self-medicate – Walter finds a raggedy old beaver puppet. Initially he leaves it in a dumpster, but he feels drawn to it and retrieves it.
For no apparent reason, he decides to wear the puppet; he even sports it when he tries multiple attempts at suicide. When he tries to leap off the balcony and crashes into a TV, he suddenly hears the puppet “talk” to him – via his own voice, of course, now with a bad British accent.
From there Walter launches on an unusual sense of self-awakening. The puppet convinces him to blow up his life and start again. This means that he wears the puppet at all times and allows it to speak for – and control – him. We follow how Walter tries to recover and how it affects his family.
The Beaver comes burdened with a mix of potential issues. For one, how about that title? It leads the viewer to think it’ll either deliver porn or an update on Leave It To Beaver. Couldn’t they have thought up something a little more creative?
Title aside, the film’s very premise makes it something of a hard sell. A story about a man who uses a hand puppet as his voice seems more suited for a Jim Carrey comedy than a fairly dramatic effort about mental illness. Indeed, when I first heard about the film, I figured that was the path it’d follow; I felt surprised to learn that it’d take a more serious direction.
Though not totally serious, as Foster clearly realizes that you can’t make a movie about a man who speaks through a furry puppet and keep it completely downbeat. She peppers the film with light comedy throughout its running time. Nonetheless, this is a movie that much more strongly favors drama.
As I watched Beaver, I continually viewed it as American Beauty with hand puppets. Beaver presents a tone and feel that match the earlier film pretty well. No, it’s not as comedic or satiric, but there’s a definitely similarity at work.
Beauty manages a more involving, deliberate experience, though, as Beaver tends to be choppy. Part of the problem stems from the narrative, as the tale often creates more questions than answers. Some of this is intentional, as Foster doesn’t want to inundate us with history; we’re presented with Walter as he is now and forced to glean details about his earlier life.
I don’t mind that – heck, it’s nice to get a movie that doesn’t spoon-feed exposition – but Beaver comes with a few too many gaps, and it also suffers from big leaps of believability. I simply find it hard to swallow that so many people – nearly everyone, apparently – would readily accept the notion of a man who speaks through a hand puppet.
The film explores the Beaver’s place in Walter’s family pretty well, I admit. Meredith seems unsure but initially embraces the puppet because it allows her husband to emerge from the depths of depression. Youngest son Henry (Riley Thomas Stewart) goes along with the gag because he’s too little to see the big deal, while late teen son Porter (Anton Yelchin) rejects the puppet – and his dad – as bluntly as one would expect of someone his age.
The issue stems from how easily the Beaver fits into the rest of Walter’s life. We see that his employees put up almost no resistance to the insanity, and then we watch as a beaver-related woodworking kit for kids becomes the toy company’s return to glory. I find it tough to believe that such a product would inspire passion in the young population, but I think it’s even tougher to accept that Walter/The Beaver turn into pop culture sensations. Doesn’t anyway feel the whole thing’s kinda kooky?
Admittedly, those are side subjects, though the realization that these become tangents leads me to realize that Beaver lacks a true center. While nominally Walter’s story, the film spends virtually equal amounts of time with Porter as we explore his own issues. He’s terrified he’ll turn out just like his dad, and he engages in a tentative romance with hot cheerleader/valedictorian Norah’s (Jennifer Lawrence).
These segments exist to spotlight the parallels between Porter and Walter and give some depth to the exploration of mental illness – in theory. In reality, the Porter sequences come across as filler. At only 91 minutes, Beaver is already a short movie, so it lacks much time to really dig into its characters and themes. Add to that its desire to explore two major roles and the results seem even less likely to satisfy.
Which leaves both as vaguely unfulfilling. Walter’s tale is easily the more interesting of the pair, and Gibson throws himself into the part with abandon. He creates a good dichotomy between mumbly, logy Walter and the charismatic, decisive Beaver; it’s a tough role but Gibson manages to make it work.
When the film focuses on Walter, it feels like it goes somewhere. It’s definitely interesting to see how Walter works through his depression and its impact on those around him. Unfortunately, when we concentrate on Porter, the movie comes across more like a semi-dark John Hughes flick. Heck, it even culminates in Norah’s soul-bearing graduation speech, something that more than slightly reminds me of the Breakfast Club’s coda.
The film manages to balance its two sides acceptably well during its first half, but it sort of falls apart during the final 45 minutes. It simply becomes too implausible and culminates in a finish with a truly odd – and simplistic - twist. The Beaver has its moments and delivers an unusual look at mental illness, but it lacks coherence and consistency.