Monday, May 23, 2011

Gee, Wally: The Beaver

In Jodie Foster’s latest film, a beaver gets multiple close-ups, but it’s the elephant in the room that dominates our attention. Mel Gibson’s turbulent private life, so sordid that even those of us who are thoroughly uninterested know all the basics, thoroughly colors his performance as Walter Black, a depressed businessman who goes from the top of a balcony ledge to the top of the business world by forming a relationship with a mangy beaver puppet that he pulls out of a trash bin. Incredibly, I suspect that’s the way Foster wants it. The screenplay for The Beaver was written by Kyle Killen, and yet the entire project feels as if it was manufactured with the rehabilitation of Gibson’s image as the mission statement. Throughout the picture, Gibson is asked to play one of three emotions: suicidal; socially anxious; and playful, and he does them while wearing a cuddly beaver puppet on his left hand. In theory, it’s the perfect blueprint for building sympathy for the troubled star, loosely suggesting that all of Gibson’s outrageous behavior is a sign of how much he’s hurting on the inside, while also allowing him enough room to flash his movie-star charm. But it never comes to form, because The Beaver is incapable of standing on its own two (four? six?) feet.

Indeed, if The Beaver is about something other than the rehabilitation of Gibson’s image, what is it about? (Big spoilers ahead.) Walter’s character arc goes like this: he’s depressed; he tries to kill himself; he begins living his life through a puppet alter ego and in doing so finds happiness, inner peace and business success; he is judged for his eccentricities and, unable to cope without his puppet, does physical harm to himself, landing in a mental health institution. Read that one more time and riddle me this: What’s the takeaway? So far as I can tell, there isn’t one, unless you consider this a cautionary tale about the risks of saving one’s sanity via insane means. Trouble is, that doesn’t quite work, because as pitiful as Walter is at the end of the film, he’s in better shape than when the film begins. In essence, Walter trades a piece of himself and his dignity for a shot at happiness, and it works. It’s a net gain, which makes Walter’s story not so cautionary after all. Additionally perplexing is the subplot involving Walter’s eldest son, Porter (Anton Yelchin), who falls for the valedictorian (Jennifer Lawrence); invades her privacy; gets them both arrested; writes her graduation speech; watches her find her own voice; and then finds a place in his heart for his psycho dad. Never mind that the pieces of Porter’s story don’t have anything to do with Walter’s journey, I don’t think they have much to do with each other either.

That’s why The Beaver feels like nothing more than an empty observation of oddity. Alas, it even disappoints in that respect, too, because Foster is unwilling or unable to treat its wacky scenario slightly realistically. For example, when Walter goes into work and appoints his beaver puppet the new CEO of his toy company, his employees snicker and wrinkle their noses in reactions that are one part “WTF?!” but also one part “Oh, look at the cute little beaver!” Although cautious, Walter’s employees are remarkably trusting of his extreme behavior to a degree that suggests that they need to have their mental health examined, too. Killen attempts to work around this point by having Walter reintroduce himself to people by handing them a card explaining that the puppet is a doctor-prescribed way to help Walter cope with the world’s horrors, but even if that were true it would still be alarming. The Beaver never acknowledges that admissions of insanity are discomforting (not the other way around), probably because that would work against its Walter-as-victim structure. Other than Porter, who rolls his eyes at everything his father does, the only person who takes genuine exception to the beaver is Walter’s wife, Meredith (Foster), who repeatedly has enthusiastic sex with her husband and his beaver – context is important in this sentence – but objects when he shows the furry thing in public at the dinner to celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary. You’d think it would be the other way around, but never mind. The point is that The Beaver wants Walter’s self-inflicted wounds to be graphically real but not the awkwardness that his trauma creates.

For these reasons and more, The Beaver isn’t nearly as powerful as another film about a broken man bonding with an inanimate object, 2007’s Lars and the Real Girl, which has double the humor and double the tragedy of this film precisely because it commits to its scenario so completely, putting as much care into chronicling the effect of the main character’s fantasy on others (and building a situation in which it seems plausible that they would enable that fantasy in the first place) as it puts into examining the core relationship between the real guy and his blow-up sex doll girlfriend. The only thing that The Beaver portrays with such accuracy is the media feeding frenzy that celebrates Walter’s eccentric behavior in order to lure him onto an examining table so they can pick him apart. In this climate of Charlie Sheen as truth torpedoer and Donald Trump as presidential material, Walter’s story never seems more realistic than when Foster gives us a shot of a newsstand in which Walter and the beaver smile at us from each and every magazine cover.

Make no mistake, Gibson can act. And if The Beaver had any bite, and if Gibson had a different history, this would be the kind of movie that Academy Awards pundits might drool over, because, gasp, Gibson plays two characters at the same time! He even fights with himself (in a scene that shows how impossibly stupid the origin story of Fight Club is, but never mind). Oscar! Oscar! Or maybe not. Because if Gibson had a different history, The Beaver wouldn’t be interesting at all. As it is, when Foster isn’t on the screen portraying Deep Concern (which involves titling her head to the side and occasionally speaking like she’s hyperventilating), she’s got her camera staring into Mel’s dark eyes, which are set inside that weathered face, which frequently wears a hangdog expression that says, “I’m a miserable human being.” It’s a wonder Foster doesn’t play the violin, too. She wants so desperately for us to see the humanity inside Gibson, and while I don’t think she succeeds, I readily admit that searching for Gibson’s soul is a lot more compelling than searching for Walter’s. Although in both cases, I’m not sure there’s anything to find.


Hokahey said...

It's strange to think that Mel Gibson was once that intense, lean, handsome young actor in Gallipoli and Road Warrior a long time ago. This movie is a hard sell: it's called The Beaver; it's about a guy who talks to a stuffed beaver; and it stars Mel Gibson.

jake said...

Yeah, this was a real eye-roller for all of us when its preview played before the last few films we've seen.

Your review both a) confirmed exactly what I thought might be the case with this film, and b) managed to be far more entertaining than I imagine the movie is.

Not that I needed much of a nudge not to see this, but this pretty much sealed the deal. Thanks for your entertaining writing.

Review "Tree of Life" when you see it, please!

Jason Bellamy said...

Hokahey: A tough tell indeed. Then again, it's hard to imagine anyone doing better with the part than Gibson. It's a pretty awkward film.

Jake: Glad you enjoyed and that I was able to take the bullet on this one. Will see Tree of Life soon!

Kurtis O said...

Gibson's offscreen nutcasery has indeed made him a much more fascinating oncreen subject than he ever was. He's the Lars von Trier of American leading men -- cringe at his public antics, marvel at his professional ones. I thought he was really great in "The Beaver," which otherwise blew a whole lot of opportunities and opted to be just another banal bit of family dysfunction (contrasting it against "Lars and the Real Girl" is perfect). I will say that, while it ultimately didn't help matters much, I liked that the chief antagonist of the film was depression. Not addiction, not schizophrenia, not some extreme mental ailment that Hollywood deems a formidable-enough villain, but simply depression. Unless I'm mistaken, you don't see that very modern malady used in such a way all that often.