20 June 2011


The Beaver has one of those premises that is just so deliciously intriguing and off-kilter that it's the kind of movie you look forward to all year. Whether or not director and star Jodie Foster's film actually live up to the potential of its logline has turned out to be more of a moot point. At different points in production, this Black-Listed script was touted as a vehicle for Jim Carrey or Steve Carell, but it arrives on-screen with Mel Gibson in the starring role as Walter Black.

Walter is the CEO of a faltering toy company and a devoted family man, who happens to be suffering from a deeply debilitating depression. On the verge of suicide, he comes up with the demented idea of wearing a beaver hand puppet he discovered in a skip, and using it as his mouthpiece to the rest of the world. And against all expectations, his life improves exponentially.

To me at least, The Beaver is too much of many different things.It's also a very strange viewing experience. Actually, even stranger than it sounds, because of the film's major subplot. It concerns Walter's son, played by Anton Yelchin, who dreads becoming his father. It's not without reason- there's a family history of depression and mental illness, and the motivated high-schooler actively and obsessively tries to root out behavioural tics that he's picked up from Walter.

So this subplot revolves around him meeting Jennifer Lawrence's walking oxymoron of a valedictorian cheerleader and getting to know her as he agrees to write her graduation speech for her. Yelchin's great, Lawrence's great and gorgeous to boot, and this thread of the story gets just about as much screen time as Walter's escapades. As much as I like those performers, and the construction of Yelchin's character, that's actually what's so damn weird about the film.

The teen anguish movie is actually quite mundane in tone, or at least compared to the main attraction. This should either be a teen coming-of-age drama about a boy who doesn't want to follow in his father's footsteps, or a film in which Mel Gibson decides to talk through a beaver puppet. And because it's non-committal with Mel Gibson talking through a beaver puppet, it's harder to let some of the implausibilities slide in that part of the film than it might have been.

And so as good as the younger performers are, they lend nothing but a tonal weirdness to a film that's already got quite a weird premise. That this subplot takes up so much screentime suggests a tendency away from Gibson sometime in the midst of production. It's to the credit of Gibson that after ten minutes of watching it, you couldn't imagine either Carrell or Carrey playing Walter. His performance is powerful and more restrained than you would think, all things considered. The ingredients are there for this to be quite a serious and earnest inspection of mental illness and relationships, but Foster never quite nails it down.

It's not the surreal comedy that the trailers or posters seem to suggest, but neither is it entirely serious. At one point, it even veers off into horror territory as Walter's plushy social prosthesis becomes more sinister. The weirdest thing by far is that the left-field conclusion of the film was something I predicted going in. What's weird about that though, is that I was kidding. And what's so unsettling about the film is that there's no way of telling if Foster is kidding too.

There’s not enough unity of purpose in The Beaver for it to be quite so powerful a study of mental illness as Foster may have liked, but it’s a brave stab nonetheless. It has a deep rooted weirdness, mostly down to the inconsistency of its tone. It sure is interesting, any way you cut it. Some could argue that it’s a film that should not succeed, because Gibson’s reputation should be beyond rehabilitation by now. It’s unfortunate then, that such winning performances as the ones on show here come amidst the lead actor's real-life controversies. Frankly, it's unfortunate that they're deployed in a film that is ultimately neither here nor there.

The Beaver is now showing in select cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen The Beaver, why not share your comments below?

 I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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