Like a jury in a high profile case, audiences are supposed to lean on the concept of suspended disbelief just long enough to separate the artist from whatever his latest transgressions may have been caught on camera phone…or answering machine. While many Gibson supporters attribute some of his actions to a momentary loss of sanity, The Beaver tackles one man’s battle with depression and his unique form of self medication. The Beaver doesn’t so much offer a cure for mental illness as much as question the strength of a family dealing with it.
Meet Walter Black (Mel Gibson), a man at the end of his rope…or shall I say shower curtain. The formerly happy father of two and loving husband has fallen into a deep depression. Nothing seems to work for Walter and he’s tried it all from traditional therapy to multisyllabic drugs to self help books. Walter only wants to sleep his days away. Finally, his wife, Meredith (Jodie Foster), has had enough of his drowsy non-existence and throws him out.
After loading up on a trunk-full of vodka, he saves a beaver hand puppet from the trash. Dumpster diving comes back to haunt him literally when said Beaver comes to life after a tragically funny suicide attempt that night. Knocked unconscious instead of being knocked into the hereafter, Walter awakens with an angry hand puppet to answer to. The Beaver or just Beav is armed with a drill sergeant demeanor and a cockney accent and proceeds to push Walter to get his life in order.
When he returns to the family home led by the Beav, Meredith quickly goes from outrage to guarded acceptance after seeing Walter reconnect with his youngest son, Henry. Walter gives her a card explaining that the Beav is just a form of therapy based on a form of psychological compartmentalizing.
Not everyone is sold on this beaver based alternative lifestyle as teen son Porter wants nothing to do with his dad’s alter ego. Walter’s other side soon wins friends and influences people not just at home, but soon at work and across the world as embracing ones inner and outer neurosis becomes the latest trend. It’s only when Meredith demands to see Walter without the Beav does the feel good story start to feel real creepy.
The Beaver isn’t exactly a diamond but is a gem nonetheless. It’s a bit ironic that Mel Gibson‘s vehicle of public redemption could come through a film dealing with mental illness since audiences first fell in love with him as a very unstable Martin Riggs in 1987’s Lethal Weapon. Onscreen psychological shortcomings are seemingly easier to forgive than going batspit crazy on an answering machine apparently.
Although life does imitate art a little with Mel being knocked down a few pegs due to his personal problems making him eligible for the cover of the TMZ Yearbook, he hands in an Oscar quality performance in The Beaver. From the opening credits and the Michael Caine sounding narration, Mel is seen as a beaten and broken man, complete with a set of horizontal and vertical frown lines. Whether he drew on the burden of carrying his tabloid inspired antics around or he’s drawing upon his Method acting chops, Gibson plays a true dual role as Walter and the Beav.
Jodie Foster‘s direction come at the cost of her character being somewhat buried by the charisma and screen time of the Beav. Foster’s Meredith designs roller coasters, but besides the mention in the first ten minutes, it’s almost hard to believe that she has a job at all. Meredith doesn’t lack a backbone, she just doesn’t use it enough. She goes from happy wife to single mom to the meat in the Walter/Beav sandwich without missing a beat. Although not completely passive, it would’ve been nice to see Meredith with a little more fire before the final act.
Despite being known by Hollywood execs as one of the best unproduced screenplays, The Beaver took a while to be made due to its offbeat and dark themes. When a guy and a talking hand puppet are the two main characters and you can’t turn that into Happy Meal toys, it’s probably a tough sell. Although, the concept is brilliant, some rewrting is definitely in order when it comes to the characters of Porter and Henry.
Porter starts out strong as a teen so resentful of his father that he lists the ways he’s similar in order to do the opposite. He’s smart and although he has chemistry with the pretty cheerleader Norah (Jennifer Lawrence), their story is almost an afterthought when compared to the Beav. Henry has car commercial cute looks and it would’ve been nice to see how he suffers the fallout of having his dad go public with being ruled by a furry hand puppet.
Whether Mel somehow falls back into the public’s good graces remains to be seen, but if he’s learned anything from Walter Black, it’s that sometimes you can get the world to love you when you’ve got a good right hand man.
An excellent performance from Mel Gibson and a fascinating concept make The Beaver a film that's worth checking out.