Enough has been said about the seemingly endless vortex into which Mel Gibson’s career has descended, and how once absorbed he hasn’t really been able to climb back out, that one needn’t dwell on that in assessing a film like the 2011 SXSW entry, Cannes non-comp showing, number one BlackList favorite screenplay of 2008. And yet it is hard to overlook the especially intractable situation Gibson found himself in before filming The Beaver, so hard, in fact, that in a strange way the imbroglio of Gibson-the-actor seems uncannily to inform that of Gibson-the-character (for make no mistake: Mel Gibson is always in character, even when he’s not), such that the Jodie Foster directed pic inevitably evolves into some kind of bizarre meta-commentary on his life, which in the movie he is only able to regain by farming out whatever sparks of charm are left in him yet to a puppet. And not just any puppet, but the titular beaver.
Of course this is a ridiculous premise. There is just no way that anyone can buy it and live with him- or herself after the fact. Which may not, in fact, be the biggest problem with The Beaver, although it is certainly the most nagging among several. And as much as one regrets to say it, at bottom the biggest problem is Mel. Because running parallel to his apparent courtship throughout the past decade—and if we’re honest with ourselves we’ll expand that to encompass everything post-Braveheart—is another and equally noxious trend, or, to use the more colorful term, vortex. Mel seems to always be playing himself—always peeling away at the endless layers of that same onion, every so-called creative departure amounting to no more than a variation on the same moth-eaten theme.
Cynical though the reasoning may be, in some cases he may even have courted controversy for his financial if not his critical benefit, which must’ve been the thinking behind something like 2004’s Passion of the Christ. And yet here we see Mel stripped down to the barest essentials—just him and his charm, whatever is left of it—and what is most surprising about it is that in fact there is a lot left over to appreciate. Gibson is an on-screen presence as electrifying as any other the last half of the twentieth century has produced, and if not quite a Ralph Richardson, what he may be is the Spark Notes version. So what’s the story, then? Well, if you must know, Walter Black (Mel) is a down-on-his-luck CEO of a toy company nearing bankruptcy. He has two children, a younger son (played by child actor Riley Thomas Stewart, making an ill-starred big-screen debut through no fault of his own) who doesn’t know what to think of him and an elder one (Anton Yelchin) who hates him. His wife also hates him, and the first couple of scenes turn on his being, well, turned out. He goes off to one of those cheap hotels that are practically custom-made for shoddy husbands (or luckless ones, as it happens) and discovers a beaver puppet in a trash can.
The movie is called The Beaver of course, and Walter proceeds to channel all of his charms into the puppet. In what may or may not be an unethical use of toys to get at little children, Walter first patches things up with the easiest target, his younger son, who doesn’t much wonder about the beaver. Before long he’s reconciled with everyone but his eldest, who still hates him. This is all very weird, indeed quite a bit more so than it sounds (and for that we have the normalizing effect of textual summary), but just when the movie could opt to go back to normal and sink into an inevitable pit of bathos, it opts instead to double down on its weirdness, so that Walter ends up having to get a prosthetic hand because he’s become so attached to his beaver, err, alternate personality. This is no Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; it just does not pass muster, especially given the fact that the ‘alternate personality’ is, well, not alternate, but merely focused on a single object, the titular beaver. Psychologically it makes no sense, and cinematically it couldn’t make any less.
And despite its stubborn descent into further levels of weirdness, in the end the movie does go for the syrupy finale where everything goes back to normal and all the loose ends are tied up, which, while it would have been perfectly serviceable sooner in the script, by then makes it only the more incredible, since Walter was supposedly so attached to his hand, err, puppet, err, furry-lightningrod-for-his-alternate-personality-but-not-actually. It is an absolute welter and no use trying to make logical sense of it. If Foster were not the person at the helm, we might suppose this was some bizarre surrealist mock-fantasia, but because it is Foster, it actually only ends up being bizarre. At certain intervals, while dialogue is supposedly going on between beaver-Walter and the youngest son, even the young Stewart can hardly suppress the look of unbelief at the proposition that he is actually talking to a puppet. And that’s one of those few telltale signs that you’ve got a mess on your hands.
Audio Commentary with Director Jodie Foster
Included are a commentary track with Jodie Foster, which is par for the course and nothing especially groundbreaking;
A selection of deleted scenes which in the final analysis only make the movie’s weirdness more apparent, since the deleted scenes are so similar in their overreach to the more questionable ones that make up the movie;
“Everything is Going to Be O.K.” – featurette on the making of The Beaver
And a making-of featurette that is itself the embodiment of a cliché; it is interesting, or instructive, to see how the younger son is told to ‘react’ to the titular beaver.
The Beaver is the kind of movie one wants desperately to work—a study in metacinema in which the fate of the protagonist tracks uncannily with that of the lead. And yet submerged as it is in a sea of bathos and cliché, and saddled with a premise the viewer never really buys into (or can), it stands more as a lesson than an example.