In The Beaver, Mel Gibson plays Walter Black, the CEO of a failing toy company who suffers from crippling depression that cuts him off from his wife (Jodie Foster, who also directs) and two sons. After a botched suicide attempt, Walter begins to talk through a beaver puppet he finds in a dumpster, imbuing the thing with a personality all its own, as well as a cockney accent pitched somewhere between Michael Caine and Bob Hoskins. With the help of the Beaver, Walter is able to reconnect with his family, bring his company to new heights of success, and even become a minor celebrity on the talk show circuit.
Okay, now here’s the really crazy part: This isn’t a comedy. Sure, it has an absurd premise, made all the more surreal by the presence of Mel Gibson during the downtime between tape recorded meltdowns. But despite a few funny moments, The Beaver is clearly meant to be a moody suburban drama cut from the same cloth as 1999’s American Beauty. I don’t know what I expected from a movie about a guy speaking through a beaver puppet, exactly, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a sobering message about the debilitating effects of depression.
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I think we can all agree this plot would have worked far better as a black comedy. But the film steadfastly refuses to allow us to laugh at anything, even while piling on ludicrous plot points. Such as: Walter is inspired by the Beaver to create his company’s next big product, which is a woodworking kit. For kids. Complete with sharp metal tools. If you’re thinking this sounds like an even better holiday gift idea than Bag O’Glass, well, the movie agrees with you: we’re expected to believe Mr. Beaver’s Woodworking Kit is flying off the shelves faster than the new iPhone.
The film invites American Beauty comparisons all the more with a barely tangential plot involving the younger characters. Walter’s son Potter (Star Trek’s Anton Yelchin), a high schooler who makes money writing other students’ essays, gets hired by head cheerleader/valedictorian Norah (Jennifer Lawrence) to write her graduation speech for her.
In the course of writing the speech, Potter discovers Norah’s deep, dark secret: her brother Brian OD’d when she was young, which in turn inspired her to start tagging. Yes, the perky blonde cheerleader was out at night with cans of spray paint, marking her territory. This film is not a comedy.
Potter tries to coax her into expressing herself through spray paint once again, leading to both of them getting busted by the cops and taken down to the police station. It’s about here that the movie starts to feel like a big budget episode of Degrassi that happens to have Mel Gibson and a beaver puppet in it.
The missed potential here is enormous. The Beaver could have been a hilarious character in its own right, but in 95% of the shots where the Beaver is talking, we also see angry, dour-faced Mel Gibson right behind the puppet, speaking all of the Beaver’s lines, and killing off whatever humor hasn’t already been bled out of this thing.
The Beaver’s personality eventually takes a dark turn, driving away Walter’s family yet again. He attempts to remove the Beaver from his arm, but the puppet fights back. This leads to a man-fighting-himself brawl that you expect to be as hilarious as similar scenes in Liar, Liar and Fight Club, but which turns out to be just as depressing as the rest of the movie.
Walter realizes that the only way he can free himself from the Beaver is by cutting off his own arm with a table saw. Yes, this sensitive family drama actually reuses a plot point from an Evil Dead movie, leading to shots of Walter in physical therapy, being taught how to use his new prosthetic hand.
Somehow, this cures his depression, allowing him to ride a rollercoaster with his family, and the movie ends on what I’ll just assume is an upbeat note.
“We're all gonna have so much fucking fun, we’re gonna need plastic surgery to remove our goddamn smiles!”
Director Jodie Foster got most of the blame for this movie’s bizarre tone, but near as I can tell, it’s a pretty accurate reflection of what the screenplay is like. In 2008, The Beaver was famous for topping the Black List, an informal industry poll of script readers’ favorite unproduced screenplays, and at various points it had Steve Carell and Jim Carrey attached to play the lead.
Reportedly, Foster was attracted to the script due to her own battles with depression. And Gibson surely did it as a favor to her (they’ve been fierce friends since costarring in Maverick), but no doubt he also saw playing a severely depressed individual as a way to tacitly acknowledge (and seek absolution for) his own mental illnesses. Alas, after filming this movie, he went on to have an even bigger breakdown as heard on the Smile and Blow Me Tapes, which caused the release of The Beaver to be pushed back by several months. Mel’s deranged behavior and subsequent tabloid overexposure is probably what doomed the film at the box office. Not that this morose, oddball drama had much of a chance in the first place.
I honestly don’t know what to make of The Beaver. It’s probably worth seeing just to gawk at a film that, from a tonal point of view, gets every single thing completely wrong. It’s not entirely Jodie Foster’s fault, but her previous directorial efforts show she’s only capable of middling entertainment, at best.
But still, she got hired to direct episodes of Orange is the New Black and House of Cards, as well as the upcoming film Money Monster, about a guy who loses all his money based on a bad tip from a Jim Cramer-style host, and then goes on the host’s show and holds him hostage until he makes his money back. That actually sounds like a funny premise; let’s hope this time the movie is actually a comedy. And let’s also hope this time, she doesn’t cast a lead with a propensity to scream heinous things about women and minorities.