Let’s begin with the upside: Mel Gibson is convincing as Walter Black, a troubled alcoholic whose life has fallen apart. This may have something to do with the fact that the actor is a troubled alcoholic whose life has fallen apart. Gibson has received praise for his performance from numerous reviewers, but I have to say I didn’t find it that impressive a stretch.
The Beaver ranks with the strangest movies ever made, and not just because of the plot’s oddness. Written by Kyle Killen and directed by Jodie Foster, the film offers a story of ruin and redemption that’s simultaneously offbeat and Hallmark Channel familiar.
Walter is depressed. When we first meet him, he’s a listless husk, a once-successful toy manufacturer whose company is on the brink of bankruptcy due to neglect. He no longer possesses the will even to go to the office, instead hiding in bed day and night. He walks mute among his family like a suburban ghost.
We’re given virtually no background information on his condition, but it’s apparently been going on for a long time. His wife — played most unconvincingly by Foster — is at the end of her rope. His young son (Riley Thomas Stewart) misses him. His teenaged son (Anton Yelchin) despises him. After he’s ordered to move out, Walter dredges a hand puppet out of a Dumpster (OK, happens all the time) and makes a drunken attempt to commit suicide in his hotel room.
He wakes to find the beaver puppet on his left hand barking orders in a Cockney accent. Again, no explanation for the English alter ego. Or for Walter’s instant revitalization. As long as he wears the puppet and lets it do the talking, he’s a dynamo of corporate efficiency, fatherly attentiveness and husbandly devotion. Is it a miracle? A magical intercession? A breakthrough in psychotherapy? Take your pick. The movie’s creators never get around to doing so.
Almost as hard to swallow is how quickly and unquestioningly Walter’s wife takes him back. Of course, if she didn’t, we’d never be treated to the spectacle of Gibson, Foster and the beaver engaged in a three-way. The filmmakers seem unsure of what they’re trying to get at in this movie much of the time, but it’s clear they wanted to sear that image into our brains.
The story continues on its preposterous and pointless trajectory while periodically shifting focus from Walter’s problems to those of his older son, an angry young man, though not a particularly interesting one. His idea of therapy is banging a hole clean through a bedroom wall with his head. He fears becoming a nut-job like his dad, but it might be a little late to start fretting about that.
The Beaver is all over the place, a muddle of mismatched tones and half-thought-through themes. One minute it’s a psychodrama; the next, it’s a black comedy. At one point it shoots for media-age satire (with Matt Lauer attentively listening to Walter’s born-again life philosophy). At another, it detours without warning into torture porn territory. The final scenes seem grafted on from a feel-good TV drama. Needless to say, it’s not Foster’s finest hour and a half as a director. If there’s a moral to this train wreck of a story, it’s Don’t make a movie about a talking toy unless you have something to say.