Movie Review: The Beaver
By Ryan Mazie
May 6, 2011
I believe that the movie The Beaver should come with a warning: “This is not a film for everyone.” Advertised as a quirky comedy in the vein of any light-hearted indie Fox Searchlight release, it is obvious why distributor Summit Entertainment would like to put a smiley face on a project that might have you looking for an anti-depressant by the time it is over.
I will say that The Beaver is a great movie, but one that will understandably have its haters. From the odd plot to the cold-European vibe, The Beaver is one of those films you have to be careful which friends you recommend it to. Even though this is acclaimed actress Jodie Foster’s third directorial feature, what will get the butts in the seats is ironically box office pariah (and rightfully so) Mel Gibson. Garnering more attention than with another leading man, Gibson might attract enough curious looky-loos to chuck their change at The Beaver.
With the opening shot being of a worn-out, paunchy Gibson floating by in a pool, it is immediately clear that this is not going to be a vanity comeback project. With not much more to lose when it comes to his box office clout or general goodwill, Gibson gives one of the most unusual and dynamic performances of his long career. Gibson plays Walter Black, a chemically depressed toy company CEO who has been long withdrawn from his family. His wife Meredith (Jodie Foster) spends her nights besides a computer screen instead of her husband. Eldest son Porter (Anton Yelchin) keeps a list of every trait he and his father share in attempts to break them; his grade-schooler brother Henry (Riley Thomas Stewart) is bullied by classmates.
The old saying goes that no family is without their problems, but the Blacks need a team of psychiatrists to get them back on track.
Seeing Walter’s suicide attempts within the first few minutes generate uncomfortable chuckles. All of a sudden there is a light at the end of the tunnel in the form of a beaver hand puppet. Using the puppet (more than proficiently handled and voiced by Gibson in a cockney accent) as a way to communicate while being emotionally distant, The Beaver goes on to dissect if Walter is reconstructing his life or further dismantling it.
Interminably bleak, The Beaver is a brave film for Foster to make. Finding just the right tone of dreariness and hope and with a fairly surrealistic concept, The Beaver is held down in reality, giving it an interesting and relatable perspective.
Written by newcomer Kyle Killen, The Beaver is smart, poignant, and anything but formulaic. However, Foster’s handholding directing style drags down some of the more interesting twists and turns the story has to offer; yelling what is going on instead of whispering, making things fairly easy to predict. Foster does get many things right, though. The coldness of the film’s color palette makes the viewers feel as isolated as the characters (but in a suiting way), the tone is near pitch perfect, and the acting is all around superb. Where Foster fumbles is wavering towards the middle on how much the audience can take, inserting some odd humor to lighten the mood that never really hits the mark. The jokes abruptly end to make way for the final act that confuses surprise and bravery for jumping the tracks.
While I personally do not think highly of Mel Gibson (and Hollywood is holding its breath on The Beaver’s box office, finally being released on limited screens after a long delay. He also has another film, How I Spent My Summer Vacation, that though completed for nearly a year, still has no distributor attached), he delivers a first-rate performance that is the best of the year so far. With a diverse showcase of emotions ranging from suicidal to confident media superstar (turns out that a lot of talk show hosts are fascinated by a man who communicates with a beaver hand puppet), Gibson reminds us why he was an A-lister in the first place, pre-‘00s. Possibly able to fall back on a career of puppeteering if The Beaver tanks, Gibson’s commitment to the two characters he plays (Walter and the Beaver) is remarkable. In lesser hands, the role could be tongue-in-cheek (let’s face it, he is living through a hand puppet), but with Foster’s guidance, this fatal possibility never comes close to fruition.
Jodie Foster, not stretching much from her typical strong mother roles, is the glue that holds this movie together. As the voice of reason, Foster (who has less screen time than expected) unfortunately gets overshadowed as the straight man to Mel’s puppet tricks.
Speaking of screen time, my favorite young Hollywood actor, the ever-eclectic Anton Yelchin, has entirely too much. Paralleling Mel’s qualities almost eerily, Yelchin continually manages to surprise me with his acting abilities. Unfortunately, there is the expression of there being too much of a good thing. While there is a sweet story involving Porter writing the valedictorian’s graduation speech (played finely by Hollywood It-Girl Jennifer Lawrence), Foster devotes too much time to this element. Although it serves a function, with the film running at a brisk 91 minutes, the juggling of the two plotlines seems lopsided.
With a similar release pattern as Summit’s Oscar juggernaut The Hurt Locker, I’d imagine that The Beaver would perform more like another one of their releases, The Ghost Writer. While a fantastic film, the ill-received Roman Polanski directing it (who Jodie Foster is working with currently on Gods of Carnage – she needs to work with a Hollywood sweetheart stat! Where’s Sandra Bullock?) voided the movie from any award and audience consideration. And while Gibson might have dammed The Beaver by his polarizing presence, if audiences give the film a chance, they might be surprised how moving a hand puppet can truly be. Don’t be fooled by the title; The Beaver is anything but wooden.
7 out of 10