Review: ‘The Beaver’

The Projector
You should see the phone messages the puppet leaves. Summit Entertainment
You should see the phone messages the puppet leaves. Summit Entertainment

1. Mel Gibson overwhelms "The Beaver," and that would be the case even if those nasty little phone messages had never shown up in your Twitter feed. Originally, Steve Carell was supposed to play the role of a paralyzingly depressed man who returns to life by talking through a beaver puppet, and while Carell isn't (yet) the actor that Gibson is, you can't help but wonder if he would have been better for Jodie Foster's version of this movie than Gibson is. Gibson is, above all else, a frighteningly intense actor: When he focuses his full power on a role, it becomes the only part of the movie you notice. Gibson takes "The Beaver" in dark, dangerous, despairing directions, and the movie is a little too scared to follow him. It's a terrific, high-flying performance that belongs in another film. It's absorbing to watch even as it sucks all of the air out of the room.

2. The central premise of "The Beaver" is so gimmicky and high-concept that it was either going to be a wacky Jim Carrey comedy or a black journey into the mind of a man who is profoundly, perhaps irretrievably, ill. Foster, as director, tries to make it the former while Gibson keeps dragging it to the latter. When we meet him, Gibson's Walter Black is a lost cause, a dead end, a black hole; he doesn't speak with his family, he sits through business meetings with a blank stare, he is unable to function in the world in any meaningful way. The screenplay sets this up as the first act before his triumphant resurrection with the puppet, but Gibson takes it too far: His Walter is a void, so stunted and lost that it's a wonder he's barely a human being at all. By the time he meets the puppet, you're amazed he's still alive and confused that the film itself doesn't seem to recognize him as such; Foster keeps giving us a jangly, quirky soundtrack and arch, pseudo-knowing narration, neither of which seems to understand that we're dealing with a clinical case here. This is not your garden variety sad sack: Walter Black is at death's door. Gibson is the only one who recognizes this; his eyes are vacant and glazed. He has checked out.

3. The beaver itself -- which Black finds in a dumpster while throwing away liquor bottles, another trope of "depression" that the film settles for, with Gibson up for digging deeper -- receives so little buildup that it's a bit shocking just how much personality it reveals on Black's hand. Gibson gives the puppet a ridiculous, loopy Cockney accent that isn't explained but is somehow perfect; it's "Alfie"-era Michael Caine crossed with the wink of the guy who narrates the Harry Potter audiobooks. The beaver brings Black back to life, a little too suddenly for my taste, and before you know it, Walter's life is not only back to normal, it's improved. Talking exclusively through the puppet, Walter's marriage rediscovers its spark, Walter begins playing in the garage with his five-year-old and, most improbably, he invents a new beaver-related toy (his family, conveniently, and a little too whimsically, owns a toy manufacturer). He is a reinvented man, and as much fun as it is to watch Gibson subtly turn the pilot light back on, the transformation is a bit too sudden to be convincing. A subplot involving Black as Self-Help Guru Celebrity is particularly extraneous and unbelievable; rather than see Black as the misfiring, troubled soul he is, America (thanks to appearances on the "Today" show and "The Daily Show," with Matt Lauer and Jon Stewart playing themselves) starts to embrace him as some sort of sage. This whole section doesn't work and plays even further into the idea that the film just doesn't quite understand how sick Walter really is.

4. It's noteworthy that it has taken me this long to get into Walter's teenage son, played well but unnecessarily by Anton Yelchin. The son, Porter, resents his father and can't wait to get away from him; in another little-too-on-the-nose touch, Porter keeps a running Post-It Note calendar of similarities between him and his dad, a checklist he vows to eliminate. Walter's father, we learn in passing, killed himself, and Porter fears he'll end up the same way. That makes sense, and Yelchin is effective at creating a real person out of a series of tics and biographical sketching. But his story -- he's in love with a smart girl at school (Jennifer Lawrence) who has her own secrets -- is never nearly as compelling as his father's, and the parallelling of the Black men's stories doesn't even out. Yelchin's just another screwed-up, well-meaning teenager who hates his dad, but the movie, once again, never comes to terms with the fact that Walter is crazy. Instead, it resolves their relationship in conventional, and dull, terms. Yelchin does everything he can, but I'm not sure there's a real character here.

5. There's a scene near the end of "The Beaver" that illustrates just what's wrong with the film. Without getting into specifics, let's just say that Walter makes a decision about his relationship with his puppet friend that's, well, extreme. The way that Gibson has played Walter, it makes a certain mad sense, but the movie, the way that Foster (who, while a competent director, has all kinds of trouble holding down a consistent tone) has directed it, is completely engulfed by it. "The Beaver" thinks it's a whimsical tale of a man finding himself, but Gibson thinks it's the tale of a man losing his mind. As little fun as the journey down that hellhole might have been to watch, I think Gibson's way is the right one. He's too dark for this movie. He might be too dark for a lot of things.

Grade: C+