May 4, 2011

THE BEAVER: Chew On This


Watch It At Home:  Gibson Delivers, The Movie Wobbles
As you may have heard, the new comedy-drama THE BEAVER stars a guy named Mel Gibson, who used to be a big-time movie star.  (It’s actually a surprise to realize how long ago that was:  his last real hit was Signs, 9 years ago–to put it in perspective, that was also the year of My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Star Wars:  Attack of the Clones.)  He followed that in 2004 with a massive, if controversial, success as director of The Passion Of the Christ, after which he steered his career, and his life, straight off a cliff (he became Charlie Sheen + heinousness).  The Beaver is his first step at an attempted comeback, and however disgusting one may find his off-screen behavior, it has to be admitted that while Beaver mostly fails as a movie, that’s not Gibson’s fault.  He gives a strong, even brave performance that ultimately the film can’t match.

For those who’ve managed to avoid the extended hype (the film, which had been screening more than a year ago, was repeatedly held back from release as its studio, Summit, tried to deal with Gibson’s deepening calamities):  The Beaver features one of the more oddball concepts of recent years.  Kyle Killen’s script presents us with Walter Black (Gibson), a family man and business owner who is stuck in a profound, probably clinical, depression.  Nothing can bring him out of it… until he places a beaver puppet over his hand, and begins communicating strictly through the voice, and as the persona, of the beaver.  This causes the consternation you’d expect from his wife (Jodie Foster, who also directed) and children (Anton Yelchin and Riley Thomas Stewart) and the colleagues at his toy factory, but brandishing his new beaver identity, Walter becomes dynamic and successful, at least for a while. 
It’s frankly impossible to watch Mel Gibson play a man with mental problems, alternately sunk in lethargic depression and then manic with the persona of his hand-puppet, without thinking of his real life instability.  Gibson seems to be going very deep in plumbing the self-disgust and desperation of Walter; only he (and maybe Foster) know how much of Walter is his own direct psychodrama, but the fact is that it all works for the character.  Walking around with a ratty puppet on his hand, Gibson constantly skirts the border of silliness, yet you never see him play for the easy laugh or step outside the man’s disorder.  (It’s weirdly unexplained, though, why this American character would give his new persona a Cockney accent–somewhat amusingly, the beaver sounds like a cross between Ray Winstone and early Michael Caine). 
Everything beyond Gibson’s performance is shaky.  The tone of Killen’s script is all over the place:  it starts out as more or less a comedy, then it gets extremely dark as Walter’s family begins to implode and he becomes almost possessed by the beaver puppet (it starts to turn into every ventriloquist horror movie you’ve ever seen), and then it resolves itself into a standard we’re-gonna-get-through-this therapeutic family story.  It may be that another director more comfortable with the surreal could have handled these hairpin turns, but Foster isn’t that kind of filmmaker.  As a director (her previous films were Little Man Tate and Home For the Holidays), she has a penchant for dysfunctional family dramas and a very straightforward, undistinctive style, which doesn’t serve this quirky material well; it’s a tale that could have used some visual or aural pizzazz, and Foster doesn’t seem interested in that side of filmmaking (unlike, ironically, Gibson himself).  She doesn’t bring out the best of herself as an actress, either–her character is never more than the “wife,” supportive and puzzled.  She gets better work from Anton Yelchin as the troubled older son, and the luminous Jennifer Lawrence, almost unrecognizable from Winter’s Bone, playing a cheerleader with her own troubles who becomes involved with Yelchin. 
Artistically, The Beaver is a risk that doesn’t pay off, except in Gibson’s performance–which probably makes it a bad test of his post-scandal commercial viability.  Summit is taking it slowly, opening this weekend in only 20 theatres and hoping for critical support as well as a bounce from a Cannes Film Festival screening, before expanding on May 20.  One can’t really root for the man–he should have tried speaking through a puppet in real life, rather than revealing his true self–but that doesn’t negate his talent.
(THE BEAVER – Summit – 92 minutes – PG 13 – Director:  Jodie Foster – Script:  Kyle Killen – Cast:  Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, Anton Yelchin, Jennifer Lawrence, Cherry Jones – 20 Theatres May 6/Expansion May 20)

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."