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Film Review: The Beaver

The Beaver (2011; Directed by Jodie Foster)

The key thing to recognize about The Beaver is that it’s both not nearly as weird as it looks and far, far weirder than it looks. As directed by Jodie Foster from a semi-legendary script by Kyle Killen that Hollywood has considered both undeniably brilliant and completely undoable for years, The Beaver is a surprisingly earnest, melancholy, and even moving drama that might be the most honest and heartfelt film about depression ever made. It’s also, quietly but firmly, completely goddamned bonkers, a nascent screwball comedy about a man who allows a rodent hand puppet to revive and then conquer his life. But The Beaver‘s balls never screw, and what’s left is the earnestness, as well as hints of new-age cynical transcendence that evokes American Beauty more than anything else.

The Beaver doesn't like Jews either...

As the trailer below and the opening section of the film exposits with clunky clarity, Walter Black (Mel Gibson) is depressed, and he can’t get out of his funk. The toy company he inherited from his father is languishing in unprofitability, his marriage (Foster plays suffering wife Meredith with a lack of imagination that transfers to her direction) is failing, and he is hopelessly detached from his sons. Henry, the youngest (Riley Thomas Stewart), yearns to idolize his father in the way that boys his age do, while Porter, the oldest (Anton Yelchin), aches to be precisely not like him in the way that boys his age do, even making a Post-It note list of features of his self that resemble those of his father that he wishes to purposely eradicate.

Kicked out of the house at last by Meredith, Walter has a dark night of soul (and the bottle) in a hotel room, and is egged on to attempt suicide by the booze and by random “mystical” quotes from an old rerun of Kung Fu. He is saved and then talked into giving life another shot by the aforementioned hand puppet, who speaks in a Michael Caine-type Cockney accent quite different from Walter’s American drawl. Gradually, Walter emerges from his depressed haze, reconnects with Henry and Meredith (Porter is more resistant), and turns his company around with a hot-selling beaver-themed woodblock carving kit (whose retail success is no more improbable than that of Tamagotchi). The kicker is that every success, like every word he says, is filtered through the Cockney beaver puppet, which proves to be far more sinister a partner than Walter bargained for.

Meanwhile, Porter expresses himself in the voices of others as well, writing expert essays in the personal tones of his schoolmates for hefty prices. His gift draws the attention of the lovely blond cheerleader valedictorian Norah (Jennifer Lawrence), who enlists him to write her graduation speech but gets more than she bargained for, too. Porter’s arc is the most Alan Ball aspect of a script that swoons in admiration for the American Beauty and Six Feet Under writer’s oeuvre (Yelchin is an actor born to embody such metaphors), and his relationship with Norah pushes him towards reconciliation with his troubled father.

You've got a spot on your shirt. Right there. Take a look if you don't believe me...

The Beaver has tremendous comedic potential but Foster dials down the laughs and focuses on the emotional interrelations of her characters and their attempts to reconfigure some sort of meaning in their lives. This is a reflection of her predilections as an artist in general (not many raucous comedy classics lurk in her filmography as an actor, let alone her largely-forgotten previous directorial efforts), but it’s debatable whether or not it was the right choice for this material. The jarring oddness of many of the Beaver-centric moments (Walter discusses ideas at work through the Beaver, gives television interviews through the Beaver, even makes loves to his wife with the puppet very much present) is rendered even more so by the straight-forward realist approach favoured by Foster. The laughter, when it makes a rare appearance, is less of the cathartic variety that the clear-eyed view of depression offered in the film would seem to demand than it is a defense mechanism, a sudden grasping stab at intelligibility by the viewer’s brain in the face of deferred rationality. When Walter finally makes the fateful choice to sever himself from the furry tyrant who is making the human into its puppet, the literality of his method is both shocking and completely obvious, but it’s not, perhaps, insightful.

This is the problem with this film, despite a wonderful crackerjack performance from Gibson. With and without the Beaver, he’s so good that you’re almost willing to forgive him for being such a prejudiced, reactionary, abusive, self-aggrandizing ass for much of the past decade (almost). Still, we’re left with little idea who Walter Black really is, if not the essentially good family and professional man that is hinted at in the closing moments. Of course, the narration suggests that this is the point, that identity and personality are necessarily constant works in progress that only reach the stage of completion at the mortal end.

But Walter’s identity as the Beaver, his identity as projected through the Beaver, is much more rounded, albeit not so positive. The Beaver is a charming snake-oil salesman, willing and fully able to offer his various audiences precisely the assurances and self-confirming myths that they want to be provided with. Is this part of Walter as well, as it is part of all of us? Is the best way to achieve success, happiness, and respect to lie the right way, or is it not to lie at all, as the idealistic cynics Porter and Norah decide is best? Jodie Foster’s The Beaver tells us that it’s on the truth side of this question, but I’m not so sure that it doesn’t give the lying side ample covering fire as well.

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Categories: Film, Reviews

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