A toy company executive (Mel Gibson) adopts a hand puppet as an alter ego and takes to expressing his views via ventriloquism with an exaggerated accent.

Puppet dramedy struggles to fill in the blanks.

SXSW: One day away from completing her role in the forthcoming God of Carnage, Jodie Foster flew from Roman Polanski’s set in Paris to Austin, Texas to attend the world premiere of The Beaver, her third directing effort and the film she calls 'the biggest struggle of my career." The audience jammed into the Paramount Theatre for the screening was sure they knew what she meant: The appalling revelations about star Mel Gibson’s personal life caused the studio to shroud the film in secrecy; just last week he pled no contest to battering his wife and was sentenced to three years probation.

But Foster, playing a little coy when asked to elaborate, said it was the challenge to find the right tone for the film that wore her out. The story of a successful father and husband cracking up in late middle age, The Beaver lives and dies — sometimes in the same scene — by its blend of quirk and darkness (quarkness?). Foster made a point of warning the audience that what we were about to see was not a comedy, but it’s tough to make an absolute call about The Beaver when it seems so resistant to being or doing any one thing.

Gibson plays Walter Black, a toy company CEO who is falling apart as the film opens. His damage is never well explained, a blank that grows more problematic as the film goes on. In the last decade or so in film, 'mid-life crisis man" has become a dominant archetype, and so Walter, whom we are told is 'hopelessly depressed" and has slept the last months of his life away, is understood to be in the mold of the droopy heroes of films like American Beauty. Of course he’s bummed: He’s getting older, lives in the suburbs, and has everything he ever wanted. Separating The Beaver from that gestural mould is the strong suggestion that his depression is clinical, quite serious, and most likely genetic. It’s one of several dim exits the film lights up, only to blow by it, in search of the next one.

'In this world," Jimmy Stewart’s character says in Harvey, the 1950 film about a man who befriends a giant, invisible rabbit, 'you must be oh so smart, or oh so pleasant." He’s been smart, Stewart says, and it didn’t do much for him; he’s chosen to be pleasant instead. That everyone around him is trying to have him committed doesn’t dampen Stewart’s genial resolve; if this is mental illness, the film ultimately suggests, we could all use a dose of it.

If anything (and to its discredit), the elusive, stigmatised nature of mental illness is the conceit in Harvey, and the rabbit is more of a hard-working MacGuffin. Conversely, though more frank, in its inscrutable way, about the devastation of mental illness, The Beaver fails to make its title character more than a moderately clever conceit. Having botched a suicide attempt after his wife Meredith (Foster) kicks him out, Walter is at bottom when he retrieves a puppet from the trash. Once on his arm, the puppet — a beaver that, as it turns out, speaks in a perfect, Cockney impression of Michael Caine — begins dishing out some tough love, and subsumes oh-so-smart Walter almost completely.

'The Beaver," as he is christened, is a coping mechanism without a manual: Walter begins giving his family and colleagues a card explaining that The Beaver is the barrier he needs to put between himself and his disease, and they are to engage only with the puppet. A convenient summation, it’s also as far as Kyle Killen goes in defining Walter’s relationship with The Beaver, which changes quite radically over the course of the film. Gibson is incredibly game as a man at the mercy of his illness, and brings The Beaver to vivid, often enjoyably silly life. (It must be said that most people may need to put a Beaver-like distance between their feelings about Mr. Gibson and their enjoyment of this movie. If you can swing it, the reward is a fine, often spookily resonant performance.)

There are a lot of peripheral themes and one fully-fledged co-plot gunning for the director’s attention. Derisive of modern pop psychology, The Beaver is both the film’s answer to the quick fix drug culture that has swallowed psychiatric treatment and an example of how tolerant we still are of more traditional quackery. Walter tells people his puppet is a prescribed treatment, and under those terms his employees are more than happy to oblige. Anything to get the toy company back on track, which he does, with an idea for an old fashioned tool box — the antithesis of all things new and bleeping.

Walter’s son Porter (the always impressive, ethereal Anton Yelchin) is exhibiting early signs of his father’s depression. Like much of the film, those signs are literal and ill-defined: Porter, who’s running a tidy essay-writing racket at school, can’t stop banging his head into his bedroom wall. His budding romance with the reigning teen queen and valedictorian with writer’s block (an awkward Jennifer Lawrence) is paralleled with Walter’s attempts to reconcile with Meredith and regain his sense of self from the increasingly domineering Beaver. Despite solid and occasionally stunning performances, the stories clash instead of complementing each other, and highlight the turbulence — tonal and otherwise — that keeps The Beaver from straightening out and flying right.

As it is the cabin changes pressure and the craft switches direction with disorienting frequency. In one scene Walter’s resurgence is almost satirically fantastic, in the next Foster attempts a more intimate approach to her subject, and one begins to hope for the subtlety of observation that gave Lars and the Real Girl its unlikely poignancy and charm. Then it’s another whiplash dive back into the blackness of the final twenty minutes. Even an actor of Gibson’s ferocity cannot wrest control of such a bumpy ride.


1 hour 27 min
In Cinemas 04 August 2011,
Wed, 12/07/2011 - 11