Mark Reviews Movies

The Beaver


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Jodie Foster

Cast: Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, Anton Yelchin, Jennifer Lawrence, Riley Thomas Stewart, Cherry Jones

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic material, some disturbing content, sexuality and language including a drug reference)

Running Time: 1:31

Release Date: 5/6/11

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Review by Mark Dujsik | May 5, 2011

Fanciful doubt that the titular puppet is anything but a stuffed animal, speaking with the voice of its owner, who has suffered a mental breakdown, is absent from The Beaver. It's a "prescription puppet," says a note that Walter Black (Mel Gibson) passes around to stunned friends, colleagues, and family members when they first hear Walter's voice with an Australian accent coming out of the mouth of a beaver, and despite his history of depression, they think nothing of it. Here is where the fantasy lies.

In reality, Walter discovers the doll in a dumpster as he stumbles around drunk one night after his wife Meredith (Jodie Foster, who also directed) kicked him out of the house. She's had enough of his moping around when he isn't sleeping away the day. He contemplates and attempts suicide that night, only to hear "the Beaver" call out to him. It's here to save Walter's life, it "tells" him.

There is no explanation for the cause of the circumstances that lead Walter to the behavior at the start of the movie or that which is alluded to in the past (through a narration by "the Beaver"), and nor should there be. The script by Kyle Killen does a few things right in small details like this despite the fact that the premise is inherently false.

For it to work, the movie relies on the conceit of blind acceptance to something that, beyond appearing ridiculous at face value, seems to have little to no effect to actually helping Walter's condition. Certainly through "the Beaver," he becomes more sociable—spending time with his family, going to work, creating a new product for his toy company. For those who have lived with him for so long, the idea that such a quick fix to his problem, after so much medication and so many therapy sessions before it, should be more suspect. Throw in doubt about the "treatment" too early, and the premise falls apart. There's something unnervingly cynical about that realization.  It is the ultimate type of avoidance for almost everyone involved. It is not confronting Walter's problems but trying to hide them.

There is an emotional logic to the trick. Meredith catches glimpses of the man she once loved in this new persona, and Walter is no longer a comatose shell of a man. His young son Henry (Riley Thomas Stewart) has a new friend—a talking animal that happens to sit at the end of his father's arm and whose mouth talks in time with dad's. Only his older son Porter (Anton Yelchin) believes something is amiss. He's not too happy that his mom has let this man, who has caused them so much strife before, back into their life so easily.

Porter's own story has some weight behind it, until his subplot turns into a competition with fellow classmate Norah (Jennifer Lawrence) about who has the worse family past as they begin a relationship. Porter, noting his father's depression, begins obsessing over it. He keeps a chart in his room that compares certain tics and behavior that Walter does that he catches himself doing (cracking his neck and, later, spending a large chunk of the day in bed), and he hides a portion of the wall behind a poster—a section of his room where he bangs his head against the wall when something about his life frustrates him enough that he needs to take it out somehow. There's truth to Porter's dilemma—so deathly afraid of becoming like his father that the fear becomes a catalyst to start further down the path to doing so—and it mirrors Walter's own relationship with his own dad, whose suicide he avoids discussing at all costs.

Killen's screenplay is not without astute observations, but it takes some time for Walter's new self-therapy to move beyond the gag. The joke is in how far the people in his life will go to adjust to his new quirk, like learning to talk to "the Beaver" instead of Walter or Meredith adjusting to having the stuffed creature stare at her when her husband wraps his arm around her in bed (not to mention how "the Beaver" becomes a participant in their sex life, huffing and puffing post-coitus). It really picks up steam as Walter becomes a phenomenon for his idiosyncrasy, appearing on talk shows since people love to watch a personal train wreck (As much as we want to keep distance between the performance and the performer, it is almost impossible to watch these scenes without considering Gibson's numerous appearances in the media spotlight, and Gibson's portrayal is especially daring in light of them).

It's all summed up in a big, graduation speech and a psychological conflict that turns too literal. The Beaver's simplistic resolution is a fitting one, considering how the movie, like its characters, evades the problem.

Copyright © 2011 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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