“THE BEAVER” My rating: B-
91 minutes | PG-13
Adore him or abhor him, Mel Gibson is the reason to see Jody Foster’s “The Beaver.”
As Walter Black, a toy company executive sliding into a paralyzing world of depression, Gibson registers a degree of mental anguish that is shocking.
In his eyes there is so much hurt, fear and weary resignation that your first impression is that his recent public humiliations (drunken driving, anti-Semitic remarks, crazy violent telephone rants to the mother of his youngest child) have done a devastating number on the formerly cocky movie heartthrob.
Here’s another explanation: Maybe Gibson is just a really good actor.
Exhibit No. 1 is the astonishing dexterity with which he negotiates this film’s big conceit. Kyle Killen’s screenplay finds the suicidal Walter, estranged from his family, picking up a ratty old hand puppet in the shape of a beaver and talking through it.
The Beaver is chatty, confidant and optimistic. The people Walter encounters — family, employees — are expected to talk to the Beaver. Walter is a silent observer.
Watching this performance is really disturbing. When the Beaver is talking the tendency is to look at the puppet, ignoring the man who is animating him. Which, of course, is precisely what Walter hopes his friends and loved ones will do.
But of course our attention is invariably drawn to the charismatic Gibson…wait a minute…is this a metaphor for Mel hiding his true nature behind his many movie roles?
The Beaver not only revives Walter’s struggling company by inventing cleverly packaged wood-carving kits (anyone else have a problem with handing children sharp bladed tools?) but allows him to slip back into the good graces of his wife (Foster).
Less forgiving is Walter’s teenage son (Anton Yelchin, Chekhov on the most recent “Star Trek”), who somewhat irrationally blames his father for the mental illness that is tearing their family apart. Perhaps he fears that the condition may be congenital.
Anyway, the kid begins a tentative romance with a cheerleader (Jennifer Lawrence, so good in “Winter’s Bone,” less well used here) who has considerably more depth than the world gives her credit for.
As a director Foster may have bitten off a bit too much. “The Beaver” has some funny moments and has an absurdist edge, yet it cannot be described as a comedy. Its vision is too dark and mournful, its bleakness too pervasive.
The result is a film perched uncomfortably between extreme emotions. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but in this case it allows “The Beaver” to lose its sense of immediacy. In the end it limps to the finish line, a valid effort thanks to Gibson, but ultimately a bit undernourished.
| Robert W. Butler