(by Dustin Putman
A middle-aged family man going through an almost insufferable bout of depression finds a savior in the form of a hand puppet. Sounds like a zany comedy, right? Wrong. As directed by Jodie Foster (her first picture at the helm since 1995's "Home for the Holidays") and written by first-timer Kyle Killen, "The Beaver" is an angsty drama about generational wounds and a distinct unhappiness that cannot just be wished away. Giving the furry creature a British accent that makes him sound like Michael Caine, the man, named Walter Black (Mel Gibson), becomes dependent of his imaginary friend. It makes him feel like somebody else, because the other option—to live in his own skin—is just too much for him to bear. Quirky and even brave—it would be very easy to screw up such a delicate balancing act of valid emotions with such a bizarre, ridiculous plot hook—one can admire the film for all that it attempts despite it not really working on the intimate, heartrending level it strives for. Article continues below
Walter Black has a successful career (he is CEO of toy company Jerry Co.), lives in a nice house, and is blessed with a caring wife, Meredith (Jodie Foster), and two kids, 6-year-old Henry (Riley Thomas Stewart) and 17-year-old Porter (Anton Yelchin). He should be happy, but he's not, and the black hole in his soul is destroying him from the inside out. In the midst of a suicide attempt, Walter accidentally falls and knocks himself out. When he wakes, he discovers an alter ego in the form of the beaver puppet on his hand. Meredith finds it more than a little strange to have to start talking to her husband via his new dam-building companion, but goes along with it when he dishonestly tells her it's a form of therapy his doctor has assigned him. As the forthright, confident beaver, Walter excels at his job, gets closer to Henry, and starts to mend his rocky marriage. There comes a point, though, when Walter is going to have to say good-bye to this unusual crutch, but he's not sure he'll be able to function otherwise. The possibility that he might have a mental illness isn't out of the question.
As it turns out, Walter's story is only half of the tale. The simultaneous second narrative focuses on eldest son Porter, a mopey, angry teen whose greatest fear is that he'll one day turn into his father. Making money by writing papers for his classmates, Porter is caught off-guard when pretty, popular valedictorian Norah (Jennifer Lawrence) approaches him about helping her to write the graduation speech she's due to give in a few weeks. In getting to know Norah better so he'll be able to fashion the speech for her, he discovers her home life and troubled past aren't nearly as rosy as he had initially assumed. This major subplot is on sturdier, more sincere ground than the material with Walter, and one of the problems with "The Beaver" is that they only cursorily cross paths. Porter wants nothing to do with his dad, both before and after the beaver shows up, but his disdain is given little context as the viewer is never made privy to the closer relationship they may or may not have once had. In order to make the third-act reconciliation ring true, there needed to be more attention paid to this father-son dynamic in Kyle Killen's screenplay. As is, this aspect of the story leaves the viewer wanting to feel for them, but unable to.
Walter's actions leave him unlikable rather than sympathetic, too. He isn't just down in the dumps, but portrayed early on as a slug who has neglectfully distanced himself from his family. When he takes to the puppet, he has no trouble alienating them further (save for young Henry, who enjoys having his own private episode of "Sesame Street" happening before him). By the time Walter has insisted that he bring the beaver along to his wedding anniversary dinner, then can't stop himself from talking in the voice of his fictional other personality, it is close to infuriating. Meredith deserves better than this, and the film isn't convincing enough when it does eventually suggest that Walter's issues might be either psychological or physiological. Judging by what's on screen, he may be crazy, but he's also immensely selfish and disrespectful. When Meredith desperately declares that she is going to fight for him, one is left to wonder if he's worth the bother.
His character might frustrate, but that is not a slight toward Mel Gibson (2010's "Edge of Darkness"), who is exceptional in the role of Walter Black. The way that he slides right into the persona of the Beaver—and the disparity between that character and his own Walter—couldn't have been a walk in the park, and the actor pulls it off big-time with nuance to spare. Say what you will about Gibson's controversial real-like issues, but when put to the task, he can be a phenomenal performer. As Meredith, Jodie Foster (2008's "Nim's Island") superbly essays a woman who tries to bury her worries and heartbreak for the betterment of her family, but has trouble doing so. Anton Yelchin (2009's "Star Trek") is certainly capable as Porter, but, like Walter, not all that likable. Porter is so terminally moody toward his family that it is difficult to connect to him. Finally, coming off her Oscar nomination for 2010's "Winter's Bone," Jennifer Lawrence proves that previous standout part was no fluke. As Norah—and, on second thought, as anyone she has played in her still-young career—Lawrence has brought a keen intelligence, as well as a defiant toughness, to roles that could have been played as weaker-willed. There is still vulnerability there, but also something extra. Even when quiet, she seems to be thinking and processing what is being said to her in a way that transcends the requirements of the script.
Intrinsically, "The Beaver" sends out the message that none of us, as flawed human beings, have all the answers. More specifically, it's the story of a broken family who relocate the connections that have been missing too long between them. This, at least, is the goal, and director Jodie Foster brings a gentle sincerity to tough material. The flaw is in the uneven juggling of the family members. There is plenty of discord between them, but not a lot of visible love, even underneath the arguing. There also are too few mentions of what they might have been like before Walter's depression took over. With no basis for how they once were, it is tough to actively care about, or understand, what they need to do to fix themselves. Take away the titular gimmick, and "The Beaver" would be a standard-issue family drama with nothing to set it apart from other oft-told tales of suburban ennui.