Directed by: Jodie Foster
Starring: Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, Cherry Jones, Anton Yelchin, Riley Thomas Stewart
The people who have called Jodie Foster’s The Beaver “deeply odd” and “disturbing” must have a very low threshold of both. Yes, it has a totally screwed-up premise—and one that proves utterly unconvincing—and it has an, shall we say “interesting,” choice of a star. But in nearly every other respect, The Beaver is a purely predictable problem picture—at least when it doesn’t wander into something akin to horror-picture melodrama and become hysterically funny. Put simply, this is a pretty lousy movie.
The story is all about Walter Black (Mel Gibson), the mentally ill CEO of a toy company. His tyrannical ways have nearly run the company into the ground—but then again, a clinically depressed person might just not be the best person to head up a toy company. These things have also caused a rift with his family. In fact, his wife Meredith (Foster) has shown him the door. Ah, but fate—thanks to skillful writing—intervenes when there’s not room enough in the trunk of his car for a case of booze. Chucking some of his worldly goods into a dumpster to make room, he comes across a beaver hand-puppet, which, just like Walter, has been discarded. So he rescues it. (Yes, it’s all very touching and poetic.)
After getting thoroughly soused in his hotel room while watching re-runs of Kung Fu, Walter makes an unintentionally funny suicide bid that doesn’t work. So he tries another that fails when the beaver puppet appears so speak to him, which startles him into a tumble that finds him knocked cold by the TV set. Upon awakening, the beaver—who speaks in a sort of Cockney accent—gives him a talking to. Well, sir, it turns out that the beaver can function for Walter, and he starts to pull his life together with this “prescription hand-puppet.” That’s fine up to a point. His older son, Porter (Anton Yelchin), remains unimpressed and continues his daddy-issues practice of banging his head against the wall of his bedroom (a wall that obviously was built in defiance of building codes). Then again, Meredith’s tolerance for dealing with the beaver is not limitless, especially when the Beaver starts to—dum dum dum—take over Walter. This is where the melodrama kicks in.
OK, skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want to know just how off-the-rails this thing goes. I can’t decide if I think Ms. Foster and screenwriter Kyle Killen have spent too much time watching Bruce Robinson’s How to Get Ahead in Advertising (1989) or one of those maniacal killer ventriloquist’s dummy moves—like the Michael Redgrave segment in Dead of Night (1945)—where the dummy starts controlling its owner. The CEO aspect, the fact that the beaver sounds a lot like Richard E. Grant’s talking boil, and Mel Gibson’s spirited slugfest with his own left hand suggest the former. But when he builds a nice little coffin for the offending rodent and then heads for the power saw—no, I am not making this up—we’re definitely in horror movie land. Unfortunately, the film treats its big moment in a tasteful offscreen manner. This did not keep me from having to try to stifle a laugh in case the one other person in the theater was taking this seriously.
The rest of the film plays out with all the tasteful sincerity of the TV movie that, at heart, this is. In its favor, most of the acting is solid. The problem is that it’s all at the service of a pretty silly concept that’s kept going by sackful of predictable genre cliches. Probably the best performances in the film would be from Anton Yelchin and Jennifer Lawrence, but they’re so swamped in a witless swamp of daddy issues and dead-brother issues—respectively—that their efforts are largely in vain. Frankly, it all sounds more interesting than it is. Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material, some disturbing content, sexuality and language including a drug reference.