Saturday, September 17, 2011
Director: Jodie Foster
Starring: Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, Anton Yelchin, Jennifer Lawrence
Running Time: 91 min.
★★★ (out of ★★★★)
Attribute its lack of commercial success to its controversial star or the fact its story centers around a man who communicates with his beaver hand puppet, but you couldn't pay audiences to turn out for Jodie Foster's high-concept dramedy The Beaver when it was released in May. With a studio seemingly ashamed to have it on their release slate and understandably unsure how to market it, the film came and went in the blink of an eye with some reviewers openly expressing their disgust in even having to discuss it. And that's the biggest shame because there is actually a lot to talk about and if it didn't star who it stars and it wasn't about what it's about, Mel Gibson wouldn't just be receiving high praise for his performance, we might have been be talking about his Oscar chances. He's that good. While the film isn't as effective on the whole as his work in it, there are very few problems and it's equally funny and dramatic, with Foster somehow keeping tight control of tone under some challenging circumstances. The only drawback is once you take away its central gimmick, you're left with another suburban family drama, but at least it's a smart one that doesn't pull any punches and takes an original approach that's both oddly moving and believable. In other words, it's much better than you'd expect.
Walter Black (Gibson) is the manically depressed CEO of nearly bankrupt toy company Jerry Co. whose wife Meredith (Foster) has just kicked him out of the house, much to the delight of their eldest son Porter (Anton Yelchin) who compulsively writes post-it notes describing all his similarities to his father. After moving into a motel and twice unsuccessfully attempting to kill himself, Walter uses a beaver hand puppet he found in the trash to communicate, creating what seems to be an alternate personality with a fake British accent and a wickedly sarcastic sense of humor. Coming up with the lie of this being a form of treatment from his psychiatrist, Walter uses the Beaver to become the outgoing, confident person he couldn't, leading to enormous success at work and a second chance with Meredith and young son Henry (Riley Thomas Stewart). But it's clear he's not healthy and as the Beaver starts to become more of a harmful crutch, the harsh reality sets in that he has to get rid of this puppet and get some actual help, or risk losing his family again. Meanwhile, as Porter becomes increasingly mortified by his father's behavior and struggles with a complicated relationship at school, it's clear Walter isn't the only one in the house with issues.
Foster's film is unusual for how it puts the audience in an awkward position. On one hand, we we want this guy to get better, but on the other, it's so entertaining and funny watching Walter talk through The Beaver it's tough to root for a full recovery knowing it could possibly result in the the puppet's extinction. Gibson is sensational not just in his mastery of ventriloquism and puppetry, but how he can seemingly flip the emotional switch at will between the somber, dull, depressed Walter and his happy-go-lucky beaver persona. The word "crazy" is thrown around a lot in the film, but what's interesting is how we're presented with the possibility that such a description is unfair, even when we realize the extent of Walter's problems were far worse than initially suspected. He seems almost acutely aware of his actions, even coming up with a reasonable lie that this is all part of a treatment recommended by his psychiatrist. The brilliance in Gibson's performance and the script is how it briefly creates this world where we really want to believe Walter's form of coping is okay since some of the early results at work and at home falsely indicate that it is. He makes us want to get on board and support the barrier Walter puts between himself and everyone else, but only when his mask is taken away (briefly, in an electrifying restaurant scene opposite Foster) does it becomes completely clear how incapable the character is of functioning in everyday life without the aid of this puppet. When it starts becoming a crutch things aren't so funny anymore. But the movie wisely doesn't judge him. And since so little time is spent on the background of Walter Black or exploring why exactly Meredith kicked out it becomes impossible for us to either, which is probably for the best since Gibson carries with him enough personal baggage and preconceived notions that an excessive backstory would only serve as a hindrance.
The teen sub-plot has been cited by many as the weak link when it's actually one of the film's stronger aspects. It could have easily come off as a throwaway but doesn't and much of that has to do with how the actors playing them refuse to let their high school-age characters fit into a box, making them both more and less than they appear. You expect Anton's Yelchin's Porter to be some kind of a geek or misfit which isn't necessarily any more true than Jennifer Lawrence's Norah is the hot, popular cheerleader and both bring more to their roles than what's on the page, especially Lawrence. After her gritty turn in last year's Winter's Bone made her an Oscar nominee, seeing her as a regular teen takes some getting used to, but she still displays a mix of toughness and vulnerability that proves why she was one. All these characters are pretending to be someone they're not. Walter pretending he's a beaver. Meredith pretending he's getting better. Porter and Norah pretending they're okay when they really have no clue what they are. The idea that everyone uses a mask of some sort in their life is a fascinating one, but Walter's mental illness has literally taken control of his. It's clear Foster did actual research for this (whereas Gibson has probably lived it) and when things go from funny to dark the transition is seamless, making some interesting directorial choices as to when it's appropriate to show close-ups of the beaver or Gibson. All those creative decisions matter and quite a few of them are so subtle they're hard to catch on an initial viewing, even if it's tough to imagine watching this repeatedly. And anyone who's ever wondered who would win a fight between Mel Gibson and a beaver hand puppet will finally get their answer.
As much that goes right, something does seem to be holding the film back. Whether it's the relatively brief running time or the inescapable feeling we're watching another take on a familiar genre, this time with a hand puppet as a stand-in, it isn't the kind of movie you can't wait to watch again and recommend to all your friends. Toy beaver puppets won't be flying off the shelves this holiday season but that's fine. With or without Gibson as the lead this kind of material is a tough sell, and with a lot of obstacles in its path it came out as good as possible, deserving of a better chance at finding an audience. It's okay to hate the person but praise the performance and it seems the studio was unwilling to take a gamble that audiences would be willing to separate the two, or felt guilty capitalizing on its star's issues. That's understandable, but they can't change the results on screen, reminding us Gibson was an actor first, and still remains a very good one when he wants to be. If anything, those who really hate the guy and refuse to see anything he's in will get the biggest kick out of watching this, given the nature of the story. The Beaver is a thoughtful, funny examination of mental illness that's sometimes gimmicky, but at least Foster skillfully uses that gimmick to deliver something of substance.