The Beaver (Summit Entertainment, PG-13)

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After yet another drunken night culminating in two unsuccessful suicide attempts, he wakes up to find himself communicating through a fuzzy hand puppet.

 

 

The Beaver is an exasperating yet gratifying film. It contains moments of cinematic brilliance and insightful characterization but also occasions of wishful thinking bordering on the ludicrous. This film has so many strikes against it—from the title (tell me it doesn't put you in mind of a certain female body part) to the presence of noted drunkard/anti-Semite/homophobe/misogynist (and that's just the short list) Mel Gibson in a sympathetic leading role—that it's a credit to director Jodie Foster that it works at all.

Gibson plays Walter Black, CEO of a toy company founded by his father. Walter is severely depressed and having unsuccessfully tried a variety of therapies has turned to that old reliable standby, self-medication with alcohol. After yet another drunken night culminating in two unsuccessful suicide attempts, he wakes up to find himself communicating through a fuzzy hand puppet (that's the beaver of the title) he fished out of the trash the previous evening. There's nothing supernatural going on here—we can see Gibson's lips moving—but the Beaver, as Walter's alter ego identifies itself, serves as a device to allow different aspects of his personality to come to the surface. It also provides him with a fresh start and the chance to be someone other than his depressive, alcoholic self.

This strategy works improbably well. Walter's younger son Henry (Riley Thomas Stewart) has no problem talking to a hand puppet and is just glad to have his dad back. Walter's wife Meredith (Foster) is suspicious at first but decides to go with it because, well, nothing else seems to have worked and she's dedicated to keeping the family together. Walter's employees go along with it because he's their boss, and besides, speaking through the Beaver Walter comes up with a brilliant idea that makes them a lot of money. Before you know it, Walter and his furry pal become the toast of New York City.

The main holdout is Walter's son Porter (Anton Yelchin), a standoffish teenager who plasters his room with Post-It Notes detailing all the ways he's determined to not be like his father. Porter is an enterprising young man who's already been accepted to Brown and runs a lucrative business writing term papers for his fellow students, commanding premium fees because he has mastered the art of writing in other people's voices (yes, one of many obvious parallels between father and son). The puppet thing is the last straw for Porter, who takes to eating his dinner in front of the TV while the rest of the family is apparently enjoying a series of Kodak moments at the dining room table. Porter also has an interesting, if underdeveloped, subplot with head cheerleader Norah (Jennifer Lawrence) who hires him to write her valedictorian speech.

I have to say that it makes me really, really uncomfortable that the Beaver adopts a bullying attitude toward Meredith, an accomplished woman (we see her conducting video conferences with executives in Japan) who's also been assuming all the responsibilities of parenthood for the past two years while Walter was busy getting plastered. Yet Meredith is apparently totally OK with being bossed around by Walter's furry alter ego and the film's tone suggests that we, the audience, are supposed to be OK with it also. Given that the Beaver, unlike Walter, speaks with a marked Australian accent, this aspect of the film is creepily reminiscent of Gibson's harassing phone calls (totally unprintable in a family publication) toward his ex-girlfriend who took out a restraining order against him. Given this background, Meredith's docility in the face of a caveman type feels uncomfortably like justification for male-on-female domestic violence because that's what women really want, even if they won't admit it.

Kyle Killen's script for The Beaver topped the Blacklist in 2008, meaning that movie industry insiders considered it the best unproduced screenplay available. It's intensely literary and ambitious, striving to say something important about human relationships and also providing for some wonderful cinematic moments, the most obvious being the parallel sequence of Walter and Porter getting dressed to go out to dinner. However the literary nature of the script is also a weak point because it often feels overly condensed and pat, as if Killen had tried to condense a 600-page novel into a 90-minute movie. He didn't—the screenplay is wholly original—but it does have a tendency to try too hard and stuff too many literary conceits into one script.

The most obvious problems concern symbols that might work well on the page but seem overly obvious, and sometimes also physically impossible, when viewed on the screen. In the world of The Beaver cloth toys fished out of dumpsters don't stink, small children can play unsupervised among the power tools in their father's workshop and barely receive a reprimand, rich suburban kids choose graffiti tagging as their artistic outlet and bashing your head against the wall is not just a figure of speech but a practice that allows you to literally break out of your self-imposed prison and see the world outside.

There are other problems with The Beaver. The timeline is not at all clear (things seem to happen improbably quickly) and there's more than a whiff of anachronism about the script as well. The most obvious example is Walter's offer, for employees who don't want to go along with his puppet routine, to be allowed to resign with a severance package. That may have seemed a magnanimous offer when the job market was booming but after several years of high unemployment and falling home prices it seems more like a bullying strategy—my way or the highway. In the end The Beaver offers a lot to like, and a lot to dislike, and it's a personal decision whether you are willing to overlook the latter in order to appreciate the former. | Sarah Boslaugh

 

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