Is it possible to write a review about “The Beaver” without getting into Mel Gibson’s well publicized troubles? The things he’s done recently get more press than his career as a whole. Well I don’t know, but I’m going to try.
Jodie Foster’s first directorial effort since “Home For The Holidays” starts off with Gibson as Walter Black laying on an inflatable cushion in his pool, looking lifeless as if any direction he’s had in life has been rendered non-existent. We quickly learn that Walter’s the CEO of a toy company, that he has a beautiful wife and two sons, and that he is severely depressed. We are coming to him at the point where he has been in this state of mental illness for some time, and it’s gotten to where his wife Meredith doesn’t want him living at home any more and his kids just don’t know what to make of him.
After a failed suicide attempt, he is brought back to the living through a hand puppet of a beaver which develops a life of its own after he puts it on his hand. With a Michael Caine cockney-like accent, the beaver tells him he’s going to save Walter life. Sure enough, his life gets better very quickly as the beaver begins doing all the talking for him and takes over his life. But as time goes on, this hand puppet threatens to make Walter Black hit rock bottom with no way of coming back.
“The Beaver” is a black comedy that gets blacker as it rolls along. The trailers have made it look like a light affair, but that is most certainly not the case. It does have its lighter moments, but it is a serious examination of depression. It’s an important issue because it is not something you can just blow over regardless of what others will tell you. Depression can seriously debilitate you and deeply affect those who love you the most, but not many fully understand this. The idea that you have to go through life and take the punches that come with it can only go so far.
As Walter Black, Mel Gibson reminds us what a great actor he can be. Aside from his work as a director which really has been remarkable, it’s easy to forget how great a presence he can be onscreen. Mel captures Walter’s emotional downfall in a way few actors could, and he makes you care about this character even as he heads further downhill emotionally. It’s a brave performance that doesn’t hold anything back, and you have to admire the lengths Gibson goes here.
Jodie remains an excellent actress as always, and she’s an incredibly beautiful one to boot. Seeing her acting alongside good friend Mel is a treat as they were such a kick together in “Maverick.” She makes Meredith Black a strong willed person who holds it together even as Walter’s actions keep testing her sanity. The complexity she gives Meredith makes Foster’s work all the more fascinating to watch, and you sympathize with her plight throughout.
It’s a shame that it took Jodie 16 years to direct another movie. Her past efforts of “Little Man Tate” and “Home For The Holidays” showed a great eye for characters that are isolated from others because of who they are and what they are going through. Her work on “The Beaver” is especially commendable in that it is not an easy script to direct. Finding the balance between the comedy and drama makes this challenging even for the best directors working today. Jodie manages to pull it off like the pro she is, and she shows incredible sensitivity to the subject matter of depression. For me, this is one of the best movies on mental illness which hasn’t been covered as much recently.
The screenplay by Kyle Killen topped the 2008 Blacklist, a ranking of the best unproduced screenplays. I can see why; it features wonderful characters that are exceptionally down to earth, and the dialogue feels fresh and without any abundance of clich©s. Many will find the premise of a man working through mental illness with the aid of a hand puppet to be far fetched and unbelievable. But his script really takes some chances and (with the help of Foster as director) makes you believe that something like this seem not all that improbable.
Besides, is it really that far fetched for an adult to play around with puppets or stuffed animals? Look at these names: Jim Henson, Frank Oz, and Ben Kenber, all these men have become well known for performing with puppets to the joy of many. Yes, I did put my name up there because I still have a love for stuffed animals which I bring to my job regardless of people’s bewilderment to that. People may think it strange, but I like that it sets me apart from the rest of the crowd.
In addition, there are other wonderful performances to be found here. Anton Yelchin, having done memorable work in “Star Trek” and “Terminator Salvation,” is excellent as the Black’s oldest son Porter. Throughout, he is terrified of becoming like his dad and implores his mother to divorce him. Yelchin makes what could have been a major brat into a fascinating person whose endeavors in doing the homework for others have become quite a cash cow for him. His relationship with his father never feels contrived, so when we get to the end of the film, the climax feels truly earned.
I also really liked Jennifer Lawrence as Norah, the popular valedictorian cheerleader who hires Porter to write her graduation speech. Still riding high on the acclaim she received for “Winter’s Bone,” her character is anything but a clich©. She surprises us as much as she does Porter with a strong intelligence and a completely welcome lack of snobbery for a popular high school student. Norah also hides a pain deep inside which defines her character’s state of mind and presents her with something to overcome. Jennifer is great to watch here, and I’m sure she has more great work ahead of her.
Congrats also goes out to young Riley Thomas Stewart who portrays the Black’s youngest son Henry. It’s a remarkable performance for an 8 or 9 year old as he has to convey both the confusion and effect his dad’s depression has on him. The scenes he shares with Foster and especially Gibson are wonderfully realized, and it helps that he has a former child actor directing him who knows how to coax a performance out of a young boy.
Watching “The Beaver” reminded me of one of my favorite movies from a few years ago, “Lars And The Real Girl.” Both films had characters whose pasts damaged them emotionally and who seek release through unorthodox methods. With Gibson it’s a hand puppet, and with Ryan Gosling it’s a sex doll he treats as his new girlfriend. Each takes what seems like a completely implausible story and surprises us by making it more than some average comedy that just dumbs down everything. They have very down to earth characters, and we are deeply affected by what they go through.
I hope people give “The Beaver” a chance. Regardless of how you feel about Mel Gibson, it’s an incredibly well made movie that takes a great script and visualizes it with respect and empathy. With it already been declared a “flop” after its first week in limited release, people are already slamming nails into its coffin. Frankly that annoys me because it sounds like many were prepared not to even give it a chance. Compared to what’s out there right now, it is far more original than most other movies. While it may not be for everyone, those in the mood for unique cinema should find much to admire here.
By the way, I love how Jodie got Teri Gross of “Fresh Air” fame to do a cameo. I always wondered what her studio at WHYY in Philadelphia looked like (assuming that is the same one featured in the movie).
* * * * out of * * * *