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Monday, August 22, 2011

Meredith (Jodie Foster) with her husband, Walter
(Mel Gibson), and his friend, The Beaver, in The Beaver.

3 Stars

The Beaver is about as strange as advertised. It's hard to find conventionality in a film about a man who tries to overcome his depression by talking through a hand puppet. Unfortunately, quality can't be measured through unconventionality, and though I wouldn't call The Beaver bad, it's a little disappointing. It never quite reaches its potential, mainly because of the jarring shifts in tone, but very good performances (especially from Mel Gibson) save The Beaver and keep you invested in what's going on.

By all accounts, Walter Black (Gibson) is a lost individual. Though he seems to have it all—a lovely wife (Jodie Foster), two sons (Anton Yelchin and Riley Thomas Stewart), his own toy company—he's incredibly depressed and has little desire to live. After a failed suicide attempt, Walter meets The Beaver. Though he seems like nothing more than a raggedy beaver puppet, Walter knows he's actually alive and kicking, and their relationship brings Walter new life. He's succeeding at work, and his relationship with his wife is stronger than ever. Only his oldest son, Porter, is reluctant to embrace this new form of therapy. But is it really therapy? And how aware is Walter of what's real and what's in his mind?

The Beaver does exactly fit into any one genre. It certainly contains elements of black comedy, as well as family drama, but perhaps the most apt classification would be as a coming-of-age story. Of course, Walter is already a grown adult, but when we meet him, he's unable to handle any type of responsibility; He can't even talk with his own family. It's through The Beaver that he starts to act his age, but that raises the question of whether it's better for Walter to be himself and not really function or to function and not really be himself. However, the real question that everyone in the film wonders at one point or another is whether The Beaver can eventually bring about the optimal solution: the Walter that fell in love with Meredith and raised two great boys.

There's an unfortunate subplot following Porter, his quest to be different from his father, and his relationship with a classmate (Jennifer Lawrence). Anton Yelchin gives a good performance, but with all the other interesting things going on, his scenes drag the film down quite a bit. This storyline is also the source of some extremely cliched moments (if I see another eccentric graduation speech at the movies, I'll stop going).

A film like this hinges upon believable performances, and thankfully, there's no short supply of those in The Beaver. Mel Gibson emerges from Hollywood's naughty list to give what might be his best performance ever. Though we never really understand the source of Walter's depression, we fully believe his illness thanks to great emotional and physical work from Gibson. It's unclear for most of the film just how ill Walter is, and Gibson doesn't reveal his hand until just the right moment. It's a tricky role, but he does a masterful job.

Jodie Foster (who also directed the film) is also quite good. She doesn't have as much to do as you might expect considering her immense skill, but she helps anchor the film in reality. I've already mentioned Yelchin's solid work, and his onscreen partner, Jennifer Lawrence, follows up her Oscar-nominated work in last year's Winter's Bone with a good supporting performance here.

It's not a huge surprise The Beaver tanked at the box office. Gibson is considered persona non grata to many, and it'll take more than a quirky black comedy about mental illness to get folks to fork over $10 to see one of his movies. It's hard to quibble with such a hard stance against Gibson, considering some of the indefensible statements he's made in recent years. But those who skip this one are missing out on a very intriguing and unusual film. They aren't missing out on a perfect film, by any means, but definitely one that is well-acted and worth your 90 minutes.


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