I could easily be wrong, but I think it’s safe to say that Mel Gibson’s career is winding down, if it isn’t already over. Given his last two high-profile films (the disastrous Signs and Edge of Darkness) and his ever-worsening personal life, the only reason he’s not the biggest joke in Hollywood right now is due to the timing of Charlie Sheen’s breakdown. It all adds up to one simple fact: Gibson just doesn’t give a fuck anymore. He could never act again and he wouldn’t care less. That’s not me saying that, by the way, that’s Mel Gibson saying that.
It’s hard to tell how this happened. Gibson’s a hugely successful movie star one moment, he’s publicly having a moral and mental breakdown the next. The man’s become a shell of himself. Still, no matter what you think of him or where you stand on his tabloid infamy, there’s no denying that it made him uniquely qualified to star in The Beaver.
Gibson plays the role of Walter Black, a man who seemingly has everything. He inherited a toy company from his dad, he has a loving wife and two sons, yet he’s also severely depressed. No explanation is given for why he’s depressed, but we’ll let that slide. The point is that due to Walter’s sudden lack of ability to pull himself together, his toy company is verging on bankruptcy, his older son hates his guts and his wife is forced to kick him out of the house. Walter’s tried everything to pick himself back up, but nothing seems to work until he finds a ratty old beaver puppet in a dumpster. Walter puts the puppet on and somehow, this beaver takes on a personality of its own, guiding Walter back to a productive life.
Walter passes the beaver off as a “prescription puppet,” designed to create an intermediary between Walter and the unfriendly outside world. If this sounds like bullshit, that’s because it is. The movie states outright that this is a bogus psychiatric therapy, made up by Walter (or maybe the beaver) as a pseudo-scientific excuse. Still, it seems to work at first. Walter gets his toy company back on track, he reconnects with his family and he’s able to get himself out of bed for the first time in months. Sure, things aren’t perfect, but they’re considerably better than before. The film is quite remarkable at first, developing its characters wonderfully and depicting a family dynamic that’s very charming.
The humor helped a lot, of course. I don’t want to say that the comedy is black, but it’s definitely a really, really dark grey at the very least. My favorite example is the enormous dent that the older son — name of Porter — puts into his bedroom wall by bashing his head against it in frustration. Perhaps an even better example comes when Walter tries committing suicide early on, yet it’s depicted with a strange combination of slapstick and futility in a way that actually gets a few laughs. It’s easy to latch onto the fact that this film plays a suicide attempt for laughs and use that as an excuse to instantly write the film off entirely. Honestly, I wouldn’t blame you for it. Having said that, the joke is delivered in such a way that the humor is in how the suicide is botched, rather than the suicide itself. However, it’s worth pointing out that the event is depicted with the unique balance of pathos, sincerity and levity that mark the film’s finest moments.
In spite of a few missteps early on, the film was still enjoyable and appealing. But then came the hour mark. One hour in, Walter and Porter both have scenes that abruptly turn disturbing, heavy-handed and mean-spirited with no provocation. The film might have still been redeemable, except that Walter gets an office scene at the toy shop roughly two minutes later. I won’t spoil anything, except to say that the end of that office scene is when the film soars across the Rubicon, Evel Knievel-style, jumping over a couple of sharks in the process.
That is the point when it becomes obvious that the beaver is therapy for Walter’s depression in the same way that a Band-Aid is therapy for melanoma. It’s at this point that Walter proves he isn’t getting better, but that he’s gone legitimately, horribly insane. The beaver was creepy enough during the aforementioned office scene, but he only gets creepier and Walter only gets worse as the film goes on. You thought this was going to be the story of how Walter gets better? Nuh-uh. This is the off-putting, depressing and ultimately bloody story of how Walter hits rock bottom. The part where he gets better is crammed into the third act and totally glossed over. I was honestly much more interested in how Walter gets back on track and what was going through his head throughout the process, yet all we ever get of that are glimpses.
What’s even worse is in how heavy-handed the film suddenly gets during its second hour. I knew going in that this was a Participant Media flick, so I expected a socio-political message shoehorned in here somewhere, yet the message ultimately left me underwhelmed. As much as the characters in this film talk about what it means to be depressed, they stop just short of actually saying anything. If there was some intended moral about psychological therapies, treatment of the mentally ill or what being depressed really means, it was lost on me. That most of the monologuing comes from the beaver certainly doesn’t help.
The film has many problems, though Mel Gibson is certainly the least of them. The same actor playing multiple roles in a film is not unknown to me, but watching an actor play two roles at the same time without the aid of green screen or a recording booth is certainly a rare sight. With nothing more than a single blank look, Gibson manages to evoke pity for this sad shadow of a human being while also showing hints of a formerly great man (or maybe Gibson wasn’t acting at all during those scenes. Hard to tell). Then the beaver comes into play and Gibson lights up the screen. So much energy and charisma is put into that grungy hand prop that Gibson should seriously consider retiring to be a puppeteer, or at least a full-time voice actor. Additionally, the beaver is played with enough ambiguity that it’s hard to tell exactly what he is. The simple answer is that Walter’s grown split personalities, but there was a significant stretch in the movie when I thought that Walter had simply grown tired of being himself. Maybe he had simply taken the opportunity to craft another, more likable persona from scratch. In any event, Gibson’s performance did a lot to make both characters sympathetic and he was astonishing to watch through every second of screen time.
Anton Yelchin also appears as Porter, and Yelchin is quickly proving himself to be quite a chameleon. He was the unknowing father to humanity’s savior, he was a precocious Russian starship pilot, and now he’s a bitter high school student from the suburbs. That’s some pretty good range. Anyway, Porter’s deal is that he’s trying to find out who he is. Not an uncommon problem for a high school senior, but the film has some interesting ways of depicting it. For example, we see that Porter is keeping a running list of all the ways he’s similar to his father, with the goal of losing every one. More prominently, Porter has taken on the voices of his classmates in lieu of finding his own voice. Seriously, he makes hundreds of dollars by writing papers for his fellow students, doing so with an uncanny knack for imitating the personality of his clients.
Porter’s development arc is extremely rocky and Yelchin does a great job of showing the character’s various emotional states. The only problem — as with the rest of the film — is in how the arc ends. We’re never given a definite answer as to what he does with all the money he makes, and the last paper he writes — the culmination of his entire arc — comes off as weak and overly sappy.
Opposite Yelchin is Jennifer Lawrence, playing the cheerleader valedictorian who hires Porter to write her graduation speech. Lawrence has been a celebrity crush of mine for a while, but I’m afraid I may be just a bit in love with her now. She’s absolutely on fire in this film, gorgeous and full of life. Really, her only problem is that her character, Norah, has no place in this film.
The movie is about two stories: 1)Walter Black vs. his depression, and 2)Porter Black vs. his daddy issues. As you can tell from the above character description, Norah has absolutely nada to do with the first story. And really, her effect on the latter story is minimal at best. She’s involved with the “paper scam” subplot, yet that storyline’s most pivotal moments have absolutely nothing to do with her. All that’s left are her own psychological demons and her romance with Porter, both of which could have been cut from the script entirely with very little harm done. Of course, it also doesn’t help that after giving Porter the cold shoulder through most of the second act, Norah starts the relationship back up with no provocation. The character was totally redundant, but damned if Lawrence didn’t play it with all she could muster.
Surprisingly, the weak link in the primary cast is Jodie Foster as Gibson’s wife. That’s not to say she was terrible, but I could tell through the entire film that she was holding back. It felt like she was only giving 80-90 percent, leaving a lot of emotion untapped. Foster is clearly a better actress than this, which leads me to believe that she was distracted by her omnipresent directing duties on the set.
And make no mistake: Foster directs the hell out of this film. I’ll grant that I found the opening title cards a bit off-putting (something about the style to it just didn’t mesh with the film), but the camerawork, editing, casting and acting direction are all perfect for what this film needed. Even when this film makes missteps — and brother, does it make a lot of missteps — Foster still constantly strives to salvage what emotion she can. Solid work.
No, my problems with this movie all come back to the screenplay. It’s like first-time writer (unless you count “Lone Star.” *gulp*) Kyle Killen really wanted to make a film about depression and had a lot to say about the subject, but he had no idea of how to say it. He could make it entertaining for the first hour, but when it came time to get down to business and really address the subject’s darker aspects, he choked. He just couldn’t find a way to do that in an entertaining, tactful or coherent way. Given the extreme difficulty of such a task, I think it would’ve been better for everyone if he had set this project aside and waited until he had experience with a few more scripts.
Well-meaning though it is, The Beaver is a misfire. The talent is all here and everyone is clearly trying to make the best movie they can, but the script can only give them enough for the first hour. After that, Foster’s competent direction and her amazing cast of actors are all left drowning in a swamp of preachy moralizing that amounts to nothing, psychological drama that’s more disturbing than enjoyable and character arcs that are given insufficient resolution if any. Feel free to skip this one.