Movie Review: The Beaver
The Charlotte Observer
When Mel Gibson was hired to play a depressed alcoholic who has no idea how to communicate with others, three opinions ran around Hollywood: “There’s a role he ought to know how to play,” “This must be a publicity stunt to earn good will” and “‘The Beaver’ will be the cinematic train wreck of 2011.”
Only one of those reactions was right. Gibson’s good as Walter Black, even if his hangdog eyes plead for sympathy too often. But the movie’s neither a stunt nor a disaster.
At worst, it’s a muddle that needed a sharper director than Jodie Foster, one who could have maintained a consistent tone and steered rookie screenwriter Kyle Killen away from obvious mistakes. Yet the film has a huge heart, and it’s in the right place.
We meet Walter at the end of a two-year slump that has all but ruined his toy company, his marriage to Meredith (Foster) and his relationship with his elder son, Porter (Anton Yelchin). He half-heartedly tries to commit suicide in a hotel room, stumbles across a discarded beaver puppet in a dumpster and wakes up to find it addressing him in an Australian accent.
Walter moves back home, telling family and co-workers the beaver is a therapeutic communication device prescribed by his psychiatrist. He speaks only through the puppet, which is full of sound ideas about product placement and parenting. Walter’s employees and his younger son, Henry (Riley Thomas Stewart), are won over, but Meredith and Porter stay skeptical.
The most compelling part of the film comes in the subplot: Cynical Porter, who writes term papers for fellow students at $200 a pop, accepts $500 to write a graduation speech for Norah (Jennifer Lawrence). Her brother overdosed fatally on drugs, and the loss of a family member (temporarily, in his father’s case) connects them.
Yet even here, clumsy storytelling trips up the narrative over and over. She’s beautiful and intelligent, a cheerleader who’s also class valedictorian, yet she has no friends and sits alone at lunch in the cafeteria. (Show me one high school on Earth where this would happen.) Meanwhile, Porter has thousands of dollars in cash and drives a new car, yet his mother detects nothing odd.
Walter’s company can produce the hottest toy in America one month but barely give it away a few months later. He’s on the cover of every magazine at a newsstand, then suddenly forgotten and ignored. His wife, who doubts the efficacy of the puppet from day one, waits weeks to contact the doctor who allegedly told Walter to use it.
But though Foster and Killen show hardly any idea of how humans behave, they do understand the ways we feel.
Walter’s depression paralyzes him. Meredith’s love and frustration swing her back and forth between hope and resignation. Porter’s anger makes him apathetic and bitter. Norah’s too crippled by fraternal loss even to squeeze out some kind of valedictory pabulum for graduation day.
Except for Foster, who verges on blandness, the actors seize their parts. Yelchin and Lawrence blaze quietly. As the movie grows darker, and Walter becomes more dissociated from reality, Gibson convincingly depicts a man who’ll have to crack all the way before he can heal.
Whether Gibson is this man in real life is irrelevant; he knows Walter Black and enables us to know him. Except for the negligible “Edge of Darkness,” this is the only movie lead Gibson has taken in eight years. “The Beaver” suggests he has a lot left to show us, if he cares to try.