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An earnest, intermittently droll dramedy about a manic-depressive toy manufacturer and his bewildered family, The Beaver is a parable thats not easily parsed. While director Jodie Foster fails to maintain a consistent tonecould there be such a thing as inspirational satire?the movies lopsided wobble is undeniably enhanced by her star, Mel Gibsonor at least by the baggage he schleps into the proceedings.
Walter Black (Gibson) is first seen floating in the chlorinated limbo of his backyard swimming pool; barely able to formulate a sentence, hes been diagnosed as hopelessly depressed and, once his exasperated wife (Foster) kicks him out of their Westchester digs, hes ineptly suicidal. As Walter trembles, drunk and disconsolate, on the ledge of his motel roof, the movies mysterious Cockney-accented voiceover (a ruder version of the gecko that sells insurance on TV) is revealed to be that of Walters manic selfa ratty hand-puppet discovered in a dumpster that, once it starts talking to him, offers a means to reinvent himself back into the world.
Theres no attempt to make it seem that Walter can throw his voice; on the contrary, the camera tends to focus on Gibsons lips flapping as he brandishes the puppet hes dubbed The Beaver. Still, Kyle Killens script, a highly regarded property long thought impossible to produce, elaborates on the ventriloquism theme with a subplot involving Walters eldest son, Porter (Anton Yelchin); busy as a beaver furnishing term papers to order, this Ivy Leaguebound high school senior is hired by the schools smartest girl (Jennifer Lawrence) to ghostwrite her valedictorian address.
Speaking through, even as he hides behind, his furry friend, Walter returns home. His younger son is delighted; his wife gets with the program once The Beaver explains that hes been prescribed by a shrink. Walter jogs and showers with the puppet; he also uses it to address his employees, inspiring them to mass-produce something called the Mr. Beaver Wood-Cutting Kit. The puppet is even there for the movies kinkiest (and most inadvertently funny) scene, as Gibson enacts some hot conjugal sex with the movies perpetually harried-looking director.
Gibson gives Walters manic jag suggestive verisimilitudeparticularly after the wood-cutting kit becomes a runaway hit and he takes to the airwaves, appearing with the Beav on Good Morning America, riffing with Jon Stewart and interviewed by Terry Gross, who wonders why he needs his prop for a radio show. Theres no way that Jim Carrey or Steve Carell, each formerly attached to the project, could have supplied this frisson. Gibson may be no ones idea of a method actor, but his pleasure playing nut-jobs, most apparent in the comic thriller Conspiracy Theory, seems weirdly confessional. (His more celebrated predilectionbeing beaten up on-screenis also present, at the hand [sic] of The Beaver.)
Shot in autumn 2009, The Beaver was shelved when the monster from the Gibson id erupted last summer with revelations that he was verbally and physically abusing his girlfriend, and it has returned as something like a celluloid explanation. (Gibson pleaded no contest to a battering charge a week before the movie had its world premiere at SXSW.) Thanks to this lurid prequel, The Beaver manages to be both exploitative and humanizing; thanks to Gibsons convincing conviction, it goes surprisingly deep into madness before resolving itself in a nimbus of New Age platitudes.
Foster might have treated the material as an E.T.A. Hoffmann tale of demonic possession or a believe-it-or-not Oliver Sacks case history, with the puppet functioning as Walters transitional object. Instead, she takes it at face value. Is The Beaver an allegory on acting? Directing? Its tempting to imagine Foster herself talking through the increasingly nasty puppet; the movies this former child-star has directed or produced have been notably interested in unique prodigies with unusual ways of communicating.
In Little Man Tate, Foster directed herself as the mother of an immaculately conceived kid genius; in Nell, Foster herself was the genius, a backwoods wild child with an invented language. She takes the maternal role in The Beaverallowing Gibson the fun of babbling on like a hyperactive eight-year-oldbut she clearly identifies, having cited her own struggle with depression in flacking the movie. Perhaps thats the problem. Mels character isnt on Prozac, but the movie isa succession of bland camera setups, cued to a highly conventional score. Would that the direction were half as nutty as the script or as wacked-out as its star!
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