Jodie Foster’s The Beaver had its moments, but the overall premise just didn’t fly. It premiered at Austin’s SXSW film fest last night, and will be out in theatres this May. Mel Gibson stars as a mentally ill family man who uses a beaver hand puppet to deal with his issues. Though this emotional drama had tender moments, the story just wasn’t strong enough to make it a great film. Instead it came across as somewhat contrived and just plain mediocre.
The Beaver had to be really good to work. It had to be so good that the story of a man using a beaver hand puppet to deal with his mental illness would be both believable and moving. With Jodie Foster starring and directing the film, The Beaver had some great potential, but the story and the writing wasn’t good enough to make the scenario work.
Gibson plays Walter Black, a family man who is struggling with depression. He’s tried everything, and he’s at the end of his rope (no pun intended). Foster plays his wife Meredith, who finally kicks him out of the house until he deals with his problems. Walter Black finds an ugly, worn out beaver hand puppet in a dumpster and has some strange connection with it. He keeps it, and after attempting suicide he finds himself not only wearing the beaver, but talking to it.
The beaver puppet takes over his life. It talks for him, thinks for him and gives him bad advice about not caring about anything. The beaver isn’t afraid or sad about anything, and Walter becomes the puppet and The Beaver becomes the man. The Beaver announces that Walter is resigning his position as president of his toy company, with The Beaver taking his place. The Beaver moves back into the house and starts communicating better with Walter’s youngest son (while the elder remains aloof). Things are looking up for Walter, until his wife discovers the hand puppet “cure” wasn’t prescribed by any psychiatrist. In fact, Walter is completely controlled by The Beaver persona, and is acting like a crazy person.
In this role Gibson reminds us that he was an actor first, before a controversial tabloid sensation. He did a competent job as Walter Black, and an even better job voicing The Beaver (the same voice that narrates the film). While there is plenty of Gibson in any role he plays, he did achieve a few nuanced scenes. What’s interesting is Gibson, especially in light of recent behavior, plays a crazy character with emotional problems in what is an art-imitating-life (or perhaps the reverse) moment.
Foster pleases, as usual. Her troubled wife and mother comes across as long-suffering yet strong. The youngest son is played by the adorable Riley Thomas Stewart, and the eldest son played by Anton Yelchin (Chekov in 2009’s Star Trek), stood out as the angsty teen who hates his father, and will do anything to avoid turning into him.
I will say that Walter is a likable character (though The Beaver is not). The audience does sympathize with him, and his family to. Their characters are well-written and fleshed out. Yelchin’s character is extremely bright, yet plagued by similar emotional issues to that of the father that he desperately wants to distance himself from. His romance with a wounded fellow student is one of the better plot elements in the story.
The film deals with some deep emotional issues. Themes of family, loss, responsibility and depression pervade the movie, written by Austin native Kyle Killen. While there is an emotional impact, the talking beaver hand puppet begins to feel like a contrived vehicle for the serious themes. When the film turns dark toward the end the whole scenario starts breaking down. It doesn’t deliver like it should, and the ending wraps up rather weakly. Unfortunately, this means the beaver hand puppet ploy comes across as unnecessary and silly. And quite frankly. the film just doesn’t work.