Director: Jodie Foster
Starring: Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, Anton Yelchin, Jennifer Lawrence
Duration: 90 mins
The Beaver is the latest folly in the troubled career of Mel Gibson, but it didn’t start out that way.
Once the most sought-after script in Hollywood, The Beaver attracted interest from the likes of Jim Carrey and Steve Carrell, before director Jodie Foster, decided to cast a serious actor with comic chops, instead of the other way around. As a project for Gibson, it ranks around the middle for strangeness – less outlandish than his decision to make The Passion of the Christ, but odder than his self-loathing, suicidal cop in the Lethal Weapon films.
Gibson plays Walter Black, a CEO for a toy company who’s in a funk. In the sensitive opening scenes we see how his depression manifests – he sleeps at every opportunity, he alienates his family and colleagues, he’s checked out. Eventually his wife (Foster) kicks him out and, at his lowest moment, he finds the eponymous rodent puppet. Soon he’s talking (in a cockney accent) via the puppet and turning his life around piece-by-piece.
The Beaver starts out impressively; Gibson is perfect as both the sad sack and clown, and his journey from failed therapy patient to amateur puppeteer is insightful and plausible within this semi-fantasy context. But ultimately the film asks too much of us: would his wife really take him back (and even into her bed!) while he’s still communicating via the puppet more than 90% of the time? When he turns up to work like this, how many employees walk out the door? Zero. For a premise this strange, the audience is requested to take numerous leaps of faith, but time and again we’re not given enough in return.
Perhaps the least plausible twist is the toy innovation that Walter develops, in which Beaver-themed wood-work kits turn his company around and create a national craze. Really? This toy is like one of the Irish hand-crafted wooden trains that clog up valuable airtime on the Late Late Toy Show – hardly the kind of thing that would deter kids from their X-Box.
The Beaver is admirable in its audacity, and it benefits from Gibson’s (ahem) committed performance as a mentally ill man. Rising stars Anton Yelchin (as Gibson’s teen son) and Jennifer Lawrence (as that son’s crush) fare well too. But the tone is way off – it searches for high-drama instead of comedy in the absurd, and it fails to tell us anything about its themes of depression, ennui and marriage. What could have been daring triumph eventually resembles an expensive Funny or Die sketch.