Wednesday, August 31, 2011

DVD Review: The Beaver

The Beaver **
Directed by: Jodie Foster.
Written by: Kyle Killen.
Starring: Mel Gibson (Walter Black), Jodie Foster (Meredith Black), Anton Yelchin (Porter Black), Jennifer Lawrence (Norah), Cherry Jones (Vice President), Riley Thomas Stewart (Henry Black).

The problem with Jodie Foster’s The Beaver is that it never fully embraces the insanity at its core. Here is a movie about a depressed, alcoholic nutcase who finds a beaver puppet in the trash and begins talking through it. Too depressed to do anything except sleep Walter Black (Mel Gibson) is about tries to kill himself when his wife, Meredith (Jodie Foster) throws him out of their house after finally becoming fed up with his depression. He fails to kill himself, finds a beaver puppet in the trash, and lets the beaver take over his life. He says everything through the Beaver, with a strange Aussie accent, that he couldn’t say before. He turns his failing company around, and may actually be on the verge on winning back Meredith, and his son Porter (Anton Yelchin), but the reality is that any man who talks through a beaver puppet is severely mentally disturbed – especially when he begins to believe the beaver is real, and really is taking over his life. But why does Foster, who was brave enough to make a movie about an insane man with a beaver puppet on his hand, and braver still to cast Mel Gibson in the lead role, seem to want to make this into some sort of feel good story? Why does she want to turn this dysfunctional family back into something normal by the end? And why does she spend so much time on Porter and his issues with the popular, pretty girl Norah (Jennifer Lawrence)? Didn’t she realize she had the stuff of great, black comedy in focusing on an insane Mel Gibson with a beaver puppet?

Make no mistake about it, no matter how insane Mel Gibson has become in recent years, the man still has acting talent. And here, once he gets that puppet on his hand, he comes to life and delivers one of his better performances. As the depressed Walter, Gibson is appropriately dull and lifeless, but when the beaver – which is a triumph of design, as his features somehow look both goofy and creepy – he is at the top of his game. With the beaver on his hand, Walter has clearly become insane, and yet everyone around him tries to pretend he hasn’t. He seems more engaged – both with his family, and running his toy company, even coming up with a best selling toy, and heading out on the interview tour with the beaver on his hand. Those who don’t know him, think it’s all merely an act, before it becomes painfully apparent to everyone that it isn’t – and Walter truly has gone off the deep end.

The problem with The Beaver is that it never takes its concept seriously enough. Walter is never quite insane enough with The Beaver on his hand, until he is completely gone. He seems to go from eccentric to insanity in the blink of an eye, missing some steps in between. Perhaps an even bigger issue though is how uninteresting everything around Walter is. Foster, who excels at playing strong, independent women, is here essentially playing a doormat – the kind of woman who sticks by her husband because she has no other choice open to her. While Anton Yelchin and Jennifer Lawrence are both very good in their supporting roles, finding their own way through their painful teenage years, it is a distraction from the main thrust of the plot. Whenever they are onscreen, I just wanted to get back to Gibson. Foster and screenwriter Kyle Killen want to make this into one of those dysfunctional family comedy-dramas that dominate the indie film scene in America, even trying to pull off a somewhat happy ending, where everyone reconnects with each other. But it feels fake and phony.

When I think of what The Beaver could have been if only Foster and Killen had followed the story to the much darker places it wanted to go (assuming Gibson would also want to be a part of the film at that point), it makes me sad. There is a classic movie somewhere in the premise of The Beaver that is never allowed to get out. Instead, they take an ingenious premise, and the perfect actor in Gibson who could have pulled it off, and done the most unimaginative thing with it that they could.

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