Review: The Beaver (2011)

The Beaver is an oddity. It’s a hokey, melodramatic film about a very serious subject: depression. Its central premise is that a suicidal father uses a beaver hand puppet to communicate and reclaim his life, but it’s not funny. It’s a tonal train wreck, but not a terrible film. It merely seems like a film in which a variety of conventions from various genres were meshed together in an effort to seem original. In one sense it is a depressing family drama. Mel Gibson’s Walter Black has serious issues. He has all the telltale signs of serious depression and apparently medication and psychotherapy have been no good in helping him overcome it. He sleeps all day. He struggles to communicate; even monosyllables seem difficult. He even tries to commit suicide by hanging himself with his necktie.

This is not light fare and the film doesn’t treat it as such. His relationship with his family — his wife, Meredith (Jodie Foster), and sons Porter (Anton Yelcin) and Henry (Riley Thomas Stewart) — is strained to a point of breakage. He is in serious need of help. And this is where the main conceit comes into play.

After his failed attempt at suicide, Walter finds a beaver hand puppet in a garbage bin. Instead of leaving it be and checking himself into a mental health clinic, Walter takes the puppet and creates a personality for it. With it, he begins to reclaim his life by using it to distance himself from the pathetic person he’s become.

I’m not sure whether we’re supposed to cringe, laugh or applaud the scenes with the beaver. The film deals with them both straight-faced and farcically. For instance, scenes of the Beaver reimaging Walter’s toy company with new Beaver-themed products seem like something out of Elf or The Hudsucker Proxy in their lightheartedness. And Gibson’s Australian-cockney accent for the Beaver (it sounds a lot like Ray Winstone) for the Beaver is pretty hilarious. But the tone isn’t consistent. The film turns 180-degrees and soon enough the puppet becomes a vicious manipulator of Walter. We’re supposed to believe that the very thing that saved Walter from successfully committing suicide is now keeping him from healing? No way. There’s no consistency in how the film deals with the Beaver puppet and, ultimately, Walter’s condition as a whole.

Perhaps the most disappointing element of The Beaver is that these are good actors being wasted on an uneven script. Mel Gibson’s performance is daring and raw; in it you see more than a glimpse of the real-life rage and depression that has kept him in the headlines over the past year. It’s an excellent performance that reminds you of just how good an actor he is. Jodie Foster, Anton Yelchin, Jennifer Lawrence — they’re all good actors too, but the film doesn’t have much to do with them. Yelchin and Lawrence in particular are wasted on a subplot that seems to encapsulate every teen romance cliché this side of John Hughes and Degrassi.

I have to describe it because it is this plotline that sabotages the entire film beyond repair: Porter is a quirky outsider who hates his father. People pay him to write their essays for them because he’s so good at mimicking other peoples’ voices. As if we can’t figure out the parallels with his father’s circumstance for ourselves, the film actually spells out that this is a distancing mechanism for Porter because he doesn’t like the person he is. Oh, his taking on other peoples’ voices as a distancing mechanism is like his father creating the Beaver personality! They both hate who they are! How poignant!

Norah (Jennifer Lawrence) is the school valedictorian. She is attractive and popular and Porter crushes on her, of course. She solicits Porter’s services, asking him to write her valedictory address, and a romance blossoms between them. But a crushing secret about Norah and Porter’s self-esteem issues get in the way.

Of course, the film never really asks why Norah needs Porter to write her speech for her or even how she was appointed valedictorian if she can’t write a speech in the first place. Nor is Norah’s big secret anything beyond a cliché. Logical oversights like these plague the film as a whole. They reek of lazy, unimaginative writing.

It may be worth watching The Beaver just to be reminded that Mel Gibson is a great actor, but beyond that, there’s little to recommend the film. Kyle Killon's script is trite and contradictory and lazy while trying so hard to be original. And as uplifting as it tries to be, the film doesn't earn its victory-over-depression story arc. Depression is not something to be dealt with lightly and The Beaver is not up to the challenge.

The Beaver (2011)

Directed by Jodie Foster; written by Kyle Killon; starring Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, Anton Yelchin, and Jennifer Lawrence.

4 out of 10