The Beaver


Reviewed by: Owen Van Spall

The Beaver
"By and large Foster keeps things straight, but the film does wobble tonally between psychodrama and whimsy."

Were it not for Mel Gibson's very public tribulations of late, The Beaver might have had potential audiences scratching their heads after perusing the posters (featuring Gibson with titular Beaver puppet on one hand) or the trailers, with perhaps only a modicum of interest. What is this film, they might ponder? A zany Jim Carrey-style comedy running at 1000 miles an hour? A dark, American Beauty-type family psychodrama with a streak of black comedy?

Gibson's ruined personal life following arrests and revelations of abusive behaviour and struggles with alcoholism has instead ensured that this film has acquired a buzz that director (and loyal friend of Gibson) Jodie Foster probably wishes she could have avoided, despite the maxim that any publicity is good publicity. To add a further layer of ironic icing on the cake, The Beaver sees the troubled Gibson playing a character going through his own personal battle within and with his own mind. No one can deny Foster's guts in standing by this film, as she recently did at Cannes where it played. But putting Gibson's troubles aside, what does Foster's The Beaver have to bring to the table?

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Early on in The Beaver, a narrator's voice (actually the Beaver's) sets the scene for us. Mel Gibson is toy company CEO Walter Black, a man who on the surface has it all with a fine house, a business empire, supportive wife Meredith (Foster), and teenaged son Porter and the younger Henry. None of this has proved enough though to stop Walter slumping so deep in depression that he has alienated his family and nearly destroyed his business and his health.

Porter has come to resent him so much, he has taken to covering his bedroom wall with post-it notes of his father's most annoying habits, so he can avoid repeating them. At school Porter earns cash on the side writing exam papers for failing students, so adept is he at aping their mannerisms in person and in print. He can't wait for his mother to throw his dad out, and within a few minutes of the film beginning, we see Porter's wish being granted. Walter is exiled from his own home and shacks up in a sleazy motel with only a crate of vodka for company.

So far, so lighthearted, but it is right about this point that it becomes clear that Foster's movie is not bound for the zany comedy route. For Walter intends, and tries, to kill himself in this hotel room. And there to try to talk him out of it is… the Beaver. A moth-eaten beaver puppet rescued from a garbage dump earlier, the Beaver, once secured onto his hand, is treated by Walter as if it is a sentient being though Walter is clearly providing the motion and voice (in a strange Cockney accent reminiscent of Ray Winstone).

Returning home under the guise of being under a new form of treatment for depression, Walter insists on only talking through the Beaver, but nevertheless seems a rejuvinated, warmer man ready to re-enter his family life and work. Both improve in different ways, but whatever facet of Walter's personality that is empowering the Beaver might not be simply providing a stepping stone for Walter for a return to the man he once was. The Beaver might be too essential for Walter to let go of, or maybe it doesn't want to let HIM go.

Neither a light puppet-driven comedy, nor a commentary on Gibson's personal troubles, and not exactly a deep clinical study of depression either, The Beaver sits on an odd series of fault lines. This is a film featuring Gibson as a man so depressed he is willing to do serious physical damage to himself one moment, hardly laugh-out loud material, yet in another scene he is leaping into bed for a threesome with Foster and the Beaver in tow (what other films can claim to have a scene like this?).

By and large Foster keeps things straight, but the film does wobble tonally between psychodrama and whimsy. What keeps it watchable is a bizarre but always energetic performance from Gibson, who handles both the dramatic moments and the physical nature of the role (or is it both roles?) with the aplomb that reminds us of why, unpleasant personal tribulations aside, he has long been a box office draw. A subplot between Walter’s son Porter (Anton Yelchin) and the high-school achiever (Jennifer Lawrence) is also surprisingly involving even though it is clearly the squeezed-in B story designed to parallel and illuminate Walter's condition and the larger themes of the film.

What is certain about Foster's film is that no one who goes in to see it will get exactly the film they expected. Certainly one of the stranger releases of 2011.

Reviewed on: 08 Jun 2011
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A depressed executive finds solace in a hand puppet.
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Director: Jodie Foster

Writer: Kyle Killen

Starring: Mel Gibson, Cherry Jones, Jodie Foster, Anton Yelchin, Riley Thomas Stewart, Zachary Booth, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeff Corbett, Baylen Thomas, Sam Breslin Wright, Kelly Coffield Park, Michael Rivera, Kris Arnold, Elizabeth Kaledin, Matt Lauer

Year: 2011

Runtime: 91 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: US


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