Before I begin, let me disclose that I did not approach Jodie Foster’s The Beaver with any measure of objectivity. I say this because I was completely, hopelessly sold on the film’s concept before it was even announced. For, you see, I lived this story; in high school, I spent a few straight weeks with a green paper bag on my hand– a puppet that only spoke in the second person and called everyone it interacted with “Mr. Spaghetti Man.” I didn’t take it off for classes, spoke with a few teachers through it, even escorted my prom date with it (we gave it a custom tux and top hat for the evening). It was an experience as bizarre to me as it was to outside observers, though I chalk it up to being a goofy nerd more than any deep-seated psychological issues. With that in mind, you can see why my expectations for The Beaver, a story about a man who rebuilds his life through a fuzzy animal puppet, were high… perhaps too high.
But were my expectations too high in wanting a film that didn’t lurch around from plot point to plot point in hurried stops and starts, a film that doesn’t drown out any sort of recognizable, relatable theme with an onslaught of poseur profundity? Was I asking too much that the movie give us a tiny bit of time and reasons to suspend our disbelief as it introduced the titular character? That was a rhetorical question; no, I wasn’t. The Beaver‘s weakness isn’t its concept, its direction, or its acting; it falls apart solely because of Kyle Killen’s much-lauded screenplay, a cliché clown car congratulating itself for depth that it simply doesn’t possess. My examination is decidedly spoiler-tastic, so read on with caution.
Mel Gibson, in a sympathetic turn, plays Walter Black, the CEO of a toy company who’s been struggling with depression for years, until his wife Meredith (a luminous Jodie Foster, who also directs) kicks him out. In a drunken prelude to attempted suicide, he finds a ratty old puppet in a dumpster, puts it on, and voila– he’s got a Cockney-accented beaver avatar through whom he can face the world. In the meantime, his teenage son Porter (Anton Yelchin, who mistakes bug eyes for sincerity) tries to score with the valedictorian cheerleader (Jennifer Lawrence) whose true passion is street art but she stopped doing it because her brother’s dead and she totally doesn’t want to explore those memories but she has to so Porter can write her a graduation speech that will impress her totally strict mom but also totally challenge everybody else in the audience… yeah, as far as contrived, useless subplots go, it’s one of the worst you’ll ever see.
The film’s central drama, Gibson’s rebirth through the puppet, falters from the get-go, as the Beaver appears fully-formed straight from its first lines. It talks to Walter, unprompted, and he doesn’t skip a beat talking right back– no fear, no confusion– so, apparently, he’s developed multiple personality disorder overnight. And I can only imagine Killen’s justification for taking the story in this direction went something like this: “Well, he’s already got depression. They’re both mental illnesses, right?” From that point on, neither we nor Walter have any time to think through it any further, to feel surprised or bewildered at this otherwise unapologetically weird concept, as the film quickly jumps from stage to stage in Walter’s “recovery,” each one more implausible than the last.
First, the puppet gives our protagonist confidence and self-discipline again. I can see that– layer of protection between you and the harshness of the world, okay. He rallies his employees with a dynamite toy idea born of a conversation with his son, and in one visit back to his house, Walter’s suddenly won his wife over and they’re sleeping together again. But it goes awry; she’s ready for physical intimacy with him and his beaver, but it’s just too much to ask her to appear in public with him and the fuzzy toy. When she asks him to retire the beaver, it lashes out, dominating Walter and seeking its own fame. When Walter seeks to break free of the puppet, it physically fights him, forcing him to get rid of it the only way he knows how– by chopping off his own arm with a table saw, of course! That description makes it seem a little bit suspenseful, but let me assure you, there’s no flowing continuity to these plot points. We’ll start a dialogue scene between Gibson & Foster, cut away to a sappy teenage angst/love scene with Yelchin & Lawrence, finish the Gibson/Foster scene, then fade into a montage, then repeat the cycle without any transition between story beats.
The film ends with the inevitable delivery of Lawrence’s graduation speech, which is– surprise!– a clumsy, stilted swing and miss at profundity that even Foster recognizes is a crock. She follows up its “sometimes life sucks and there’s nothing we can do to make it better” message with slow-mo, happy ending shots of Gibson and family that would make Norman Rockwell blush. Where there could have been real bite, the movie settles for a neutered exploration of a devastating, serious mental illness, where the tone gets dragged from cheap laughs to the depths of despair, then arbitrarily yanked back into an unearned happy ending. Maybe my expectations for The Beaver were unreasonable, given my personal experience, but I’d say The Beaver expects more from us, the viewers, than it does from itself, a pedestrian adult drama using a fantastic premise as a crutch for its messy meandering.