Before Mel Gibson made the news for all the wrong reasons, I was highly anticipating the release of Jodie Foster’s The Beaver. Why? Because I was left thoroughly impressed by Kyle Killen’s script which topped the 2008 Black List for best unproduced screenplay of that year. Beyond its seemingly absurd premise of a depressed man using a discarded beaver puppet to communicate with the world around him, the screenplay went to unexpectedly dark places, bypassing most of the obvious comedic tropes one could have expected.
Its odd story revolves around Walter (Gibson), a clinically depressed CEO of a toy company who is all but a shell of himself after suffering a nervous breakdown. He spends most of his time sleeping and aimlessly goes through life as if he was already dead. His wife Meredith (Jodie Foster) is at the end of the rope and is left with no choice but to kick him out of the house while his teenage son Porter (Anton Yelchin) has practically given up on his father.
After a failed suicide attempt, Walter finds a beaver puppet in the trash can and puts it on before passing out in a drunken torpor. When he wakes up the next day, he finds that the Beaver has taken a life of its own as some sort of therapeutic device. At first, Walter seems to undergo a miraculous revival, rekindling the relationships with his wife and sons, and bringing his business back from the brink of bankruptcy. However, everyone soon discovers that the beaver has completely taken over Walter’s life, Cockney accent and all.
The Beaver is at his best exploring the nature of crippling depression, a condition that has been for the most part completely misportrayed in mainstream cinema, as well as the effects of the disease on Walter and the people around him. It’s an admirably unflinching portrait of the mental illness and Gibson’s off-screen antics make him fittingly empathetic in a superb central performance. Think what you want of Mel Gibson’s personal issues but it can’t be denied that he is a very talented actor. It’s a difficult part in which he has to simultaneously play two characters with hardly any dialogue for the actual Walter but he is easily the most compelling aspect of this film.
Less compelling however is a major subplot involving Walter’s son Porter who is terrified of becoming the same dysfunctional man that his father is. As the movie unfolds, the parallels between father and son are highlighted through their similar mannerisms and their penchant for self-destructive behavior. Porter’s resentment toward his dad could have made for a strong secondary tread but instead leads down the all-too common path of angst-ridden teen romance as Porter falls in love with popular classmate Norah (Jennifer Lawrence) who is hiding a secret of her own. Nonetheless, Yelchin and Lawrence aren’t to blame for the movie’s shortcoming as they did what they could with their characters.
The film falters most when Gibson isn’t on the screen and most of the issues with The Beaver can be traced back to Jodie Foster’s timid direction which plays it overly safe and makes this movie feel underdeveloped and overly straightforward. This was a film that had to be cinematically daring and edgy for it to be memorable and instead, Foster aimed right down the middle of the road, mishandling the tonal shifts between heartbreaking drama, dark comedy and coming-of-age story in the process. Reading the script, I found certain part of the story to be quite hilarious and thought the movie would have a heavier mix of black comedy. Sadly, that seemed to have gotten lost in this simplistic adaptation from screenplay to film.
Mel Gibson gives what could be the best performance of his career but The Beaver suffer from Jodie Foster’s timid direction which prevent this movie from being more than a bleak, modest family dramedy.
Notes: Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material, some disturbing content, sexuality and language including a drug reference, 91 minutes.