Mel Gibson has overtaken Woody Allen as the most anathematic movie star in Hollywood: There are people who simply refuse to watch his movies any more, and The Beaver, which was not written for Gibson but feels tailor made for him, isn’t likely to change many minds. Kyle Killen’s script, which had kicked around the studios for a couple of years widely admired but unproduced, caught the attention of director Jodie Foster, who saw it as a perfect vehicle for her old friend. When the movie opens, toy company executive Walter Black (Gibson) is deep in the throes of a paralyzing depression, drinking himself into stupors and contemplating suicide. His exasperated wife Meredith (Foster), frightened and repelled by the effect Walter’s behavior is having on their teenaged son Porter (Anton Yelchin), kicks him out of the house.
Then Walter finds a hand puppet — a rumpled, google-eyed beaver — in a dumpster, and something about the toy breaks through to him in a way nothing else can. Soon, Walter is back to his old self, reconnecting with his family, regaining control at his job and embracing life but always — always — with the beaver puppet in his left hand, speaking for it in a cockney accent.
“People have to doubt your sanity a little,” Walter says when his friends look at him like he’s crazy. “Mozart was known to meow like a cat.” He refers to the beaver as a “prescription puppet” which he claims is an extremely popular form of psychiatric treatment in Sweden. “Are you crazy?” his son asks. “Maybe. But I’m working on it.”
There are many lines in The Beaver that seem to have been written specifically for Gibson as a way of explaining his off-screen antics (the movie was filmed between his drunk-driving arrest and the release of the recordings of his profanity-laden rants at his ex-girlfriend). But the intrusion of reality on such a fanciful movie hurts more than it helps: Despite Gibson’s delicate, heartfelt performance, you never fully surrender to the film’s fiction: You’re constantly thinking about the parallels to the actor’s life.
Foster, a supremely gifted actress who has never proven to be much of a director (this is her third movie, after Little Man Tate and Home for the Holidays), downplays the comedic elements inherent in this material and stresses the melodrama. Her direction is disappointingly straightforward and uninspired. Wouldn’t this material have been better played as an all-out dark comedy? The scenes involving Walter’s son and his tentative courtship of a girl from school (Jennifer Lawrence) feel utterly extraneous, included only to pad out the film’s running time to a brief 90 minutes. And the story’s ultimate resolution, extreme as it is, is even harder to believe than the central conceit. I respected The Beaver for having the conviction to treat mental illness seriously and without compromise. But did it have to be so maudlin, too?
Cast: Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, Anton Yelchin, Jennifer Lawrence, Cherry Jones.
Director: Jodie Foster.
Screenwriter: Kyle Killen.
Producers: Steve Golin, Keith Redmon, Ann Ruark.
A Summit Entertainment release. Running time: 91 minutes. Vulgar language, brief violence, adult themes. Opens Friday May 13 in Miami-Dade: Regal South Beach; in Broward: Gateway, Palace.