Monday, May 30, 2011

The Beaver

I’ll grant The Beaver this much: it’s not the train wreck I imagined. It’s still something of a wreck, mind you, but it’s also intriguing enough to avoid being a complete disaster. Mel Gibson stars as Walter, the clinically depressed CEO of a toy company, in one of the film’s many neat, obvious ironies. One botched slapstick suicide later, and a beaver puppet that speaks in a Michael Caine accent while spouting carpe-diem platitudes takes control of Walter’s hand. Supposedly, the puppet is a form of therapy, allowing Walter the necessary distance so that he can once again appreciate his life. It easily serves the same purpose for the audience, allowing us the necessary distance from this disgraced A-lister to at least tolerate his presence, if not appreciate his talents. (Say what you will, but just look at that mug shot and tell me you’re not mesmerized. Even in still photos, Gibson has an electric presence.)

Jodie Foster directs and plays Walter’s long-suffering wife, and both director and performer release every stray smile through gritted teeth and a pained expression. Does it hurt that much, Jodie? Ah, but this is no laughing matter, and that is where our troubles begin. How can you avoid humor in a film that features a montage of Gibson, Foster and hand puppet engaging in vigorous makeup sex? (Don’t worry, it’s not that freaky—the puppet mostly just likes to watch.) Yet Foster is clearly uncomfortable with the thought that this film will be treated as a joke, and recoils from the inherent absurdity of her premise. This only makes things worse, as she overcompensates, turning every second scene into another emotional peak. The whole film becomes one dramatic high after another until it is as numbing as Walter’s depression; everything is drowned in a somberness typified by the sort of soundtrack that features Radiohead songs and a piano player who only seems to have one finger.

Foster certainly deserves credit for not ignoring the darkness inherent to the situation—the third act takes a grisly turn that is shockingly audacious, in fact—but the film never resolves this tension between inspirational family drama and edgy psychodrama. It can’t decide if it wants to be as cute and cuddly as a talking stuffed puppet, or as dark and dangerous as, er, a talking stuffed puppet.

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