(No longer in theaters)
Steve Golin, Keith Redmon, Ann Ruark
May 6, 2011
In The Beaver, Mel Gibson is Walter Black, a near-catatonically depressed business owner who finds a beaver puppet in a garbage can and begins to talk through it using a blunt cockney accent. Although Walter plainly manipulates the puppet and makes no ventriloquist-like attempt to conceal the movement of his lips, the Beaver (who introduces himself as “the Beaver”) claims to be alive and speaking on Walter’s behalf. To engage Walter, you must literally talk to the hand.
Despite its bizarro-world trappings, Kyle Killen’s script is a tidy problem drama exploring the nature of psychological defense mechanisms. Walter, through the Beaver, explains that instead of living in misery, he has wiped the slate clean and become someone/something else. In contrast, his teenage son, Porter (Anton Yelchin), struggles to remake his own identity in a manner more conventionally psychotherapeutic. He’s stuck Post-its to his wall denoting each of his father’s mannerisms and attitudes, and sets out to purge himself of all of them. He has also made it his mission to force a classmate, Norah (Jennifer Lawrence), on whom he has an intense crush, to confront the death by overdose of her older brother, thereby liberating her from the deforming effects of repression. This turns out not to be the fastest way to a young girl’s heart—but neither, at the other extreme, is planting a kiss on your spouse’s lips with a puppet. Perhaps it’s for the best that we’re spared the existential dislocation of watching the Beaver venture beneath the sheets …
Jodie Foster both directed the film and plays Meredith, Walter’s stricken wife, and she has muddled her two roles: The Beaver is so heavy-spirited it could easily be “a Meredith Black film.” She never lets you see how Walter could, in the short term, be liberated by pretending to be the Beaver, a rude, extroverted creature out for a good time. She’s so afraid of trivializing his suicidal feelings that she forgets she’s an artist and not a social worker. The movie’s glumness is in synch with Foster’s performances over the last decade: It’s as if she’s decided that acting is something you mature beyond. Which I suspect had a dampening effect on Gibson’s performance.
I couldn’t wait to see Mel play a tortured soul in The Beaver—I was ready to forgive him everything. (Okay, almost everything.) His most inspired performance was as a semi-delusional paranoiac in Conspiracy Theory, the movie a marvelous change from the usual Make Mel Mad template in which the death or injury of a lover/wife/child/dog drives his characters to murderous vengeance, his anger all mixed up with his antic temperament and self-loathing. In Conspiracy Theory, he managed to be both zany and poignant. But his Walter never mushrooms into a larger-than-life loon. Because the puppet is doing the talking, Gibson bites his lips and turns his face into a blank—you register only the wounded baby blues, the sagging features, the stupor. It’s a depressed performance, abstract and unsatisfying. And the Beaver isn’t much to look at, either, being rather ordinary, with disappointing anatomically correct small eyes. Killen hasn’t used the Beaver to illuminate Walter’s inner world, so the puppet ends up a mere thug: It’s not much of a surprise when he makes like the dummy in Magic. Gibson is better in the later scenes, when Walter tries to escape the Beaver’s nefarious influence. And Gibson’s never bad. It’s just that we know how much is missing. As a raging nutcase, he’s capable of so much more.