Movie Review: The Beaver (2011)

Mel Gibson in The Beaver
Photo: Summit Entertainment

Depressing, occasionally disjointed and somewhat overly sentimental, Jodie Foster’s The Beaver remains a solid film thanks to a fitting lead performance by Mel Gibson, considering the man’s all too public, private life, which caused this film to sit on the shelf for nearly a year.

Originally designed as a comedy for Steve Carell, Foster came on board and found darker corners to explore, which isn’t all that surprising considering the roles Foster has gravitated toward throughout most of her career. Here she tells the story of Walter Black (Gibson), a man so depressed he’s ready to check out. His family life has fallen apart and his eldest son, Porter (Anton Yelchin), hates him to the extent he’s taken the time to note all the negative similarities he shares with his now aimless father. What’s Walter to do?

For Walter the choice is obvious, but after a failed suicide attempt he miraculously finds a new life trajectory in the form of a beaver hand puppet he found in a dumpster outside a convenience store. As he gives his decision making over to this other personality, his life starts to take a turn for the better… that is, as good as it can get for a guy who’s taking advice from a hand puppet.

Wearing a beaver puppet and voicing it with an Australian accent, Walter returns to his job as the CEO of a major toy company with new found vigor. And to say it’s a movie miracle Walter’s employees accept his unique approach to self-therapy is an understatement. His wife (Foster), whom only a day earlier kicked him out of the house, invites him back home and their youngest son (Riley Thomas Stewart) is immediately entertained. The only one unwilling to give him a break is Porter and this fractured father-son relationship rings throughout most of the film, and is the cause of that “disjointed” feeling I mentioned earlier.

Foster has edited the feature together by bouncing back-and-forth between Walter and Porter’s stories. Porter is highly intelligent, but also a bit of an outcast at school. He accepts money from his classmates to do their work and then heads home to slam his head into his bedroom wall. However, his life begins to change when the head cheerleader (Jennifer Lawrence) asks for his help and begins to reveal she has problems of her own. Being socially awkward and on the verge of his own bout with depression, Porter’s ability to get into people’s heads begins to backfire as his insistence on not becoming like his father proves to be counter-productive.

Foster has a hard time balancing these two aspects of the story before bringing them together in the end, and the fact Yelchin and Lawrence seem to be sleepwalking through their performances doesn’t help. Often Foster’s decision is to simply move from one storyline to the other with little rhyme, reason or connecting thread, which wouldn’t be as much of a problem if she didn’t rely on this familial gap to bring the story home. It ends up feeling forced, resulting in the overly sentimental ending I alluded to earlier.

I do, however, have to point out the effective score by Marcelo Zarvos (Sin Nombre), which reminded me a lot of the work Paul Buckmaster and Astor Piazzolla put into Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys. The accordion plays a large part here, and it lends itself well to the rather unique, slightly off-kilter nature of the story. Outside of Gibson’s performance, the one thing this film has going for it is that it isn’t your average run-of-the-mill depression story, it’s unique and the score serves it well.

Foster’s handling of the beaver puppet is also worthy of note. Telling a story of a man who not only wears a puppet on his hand 24/7, but uses it in every day conversation and pretty much all facets of his life, is fodder for a screwball comedy, not a drama. But her ability to know when to present the puppet in a close-up or a two-shot with Walter is superb. If you’re laughing while watching, you’re laughing with the film, not at it.

And then it all comes back to Gibson’s performance, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t distracted by his personal troubles. The nature of this story makes it easy to draw correlations to Gibson’s real life, which occasionally takes you out of the picture and into the tabloids. Overall The Beaver is a decent drama, but the choppy story structure and a bit too clean an ending given that what leads up to it, is sometimes hard to swallow. It’s worth seeing for Gibson’s performance, but beyond that it is just too depressing for me to ever really want to watch it again.