When I first heard about the premise for Jodie Foster's "The Beaver," which stars Mel Gibson, I thought to myself, "Are they kidding?" It's about Walter Black, a severely depressed chief executive officer of a failing children's toy company who rouses himself back to sanity by creating a loudmouthed Cockney-accented alter ego for himself in the form of a beaver hand puppet that he fishes out of a dumpster.
Well, nobody's kidding – which doesn't mean that "The Beaver" isn't often inadvertently risible. Its script, by Kyle Killen, created a stir in 2008 when it was named as the best unproduced screenplay by an outfit called Hollywood Blacklist, which I guess goes to prove that not all Hollywood blacklists are bad.
It doesn't help, of course, that Gibson brings with him more baggage than an ocean liner, or that some of that baggage seems to have been consciously worked into the movie.
Walter, for example, in a pre-beaver effort to shock himself out of his depression, is briefly shown flagellating himself like a Roman Catholic penitent. Turned out of his house by his loving but exasperated wife, Meredith (Foster), he groggily haunts liquor stores and, boozed up, prepares to jump from the balcony of his crummy hotel room.
Actually, Walter's searing masochism here doesn't represent anything new for Gibson. As an actor, he's specialized in roles (the "Lethal Weapon" movies, "The Man Without a Face," "Braveheart," "Conspiracy Theory," to name just a few) in which his characters are maimed, tortured, self-annihilating. But, given his serial public outrages in recent years, it's impossible, if not altogether fair, not to see "The Beaver" as a species of psychodrama.
Still, Gibson has long demonstrated a dynamic gift for combining seriousness and levity, qualities that should have stood him in good stead here. But the entire film is overlaid with a sodden earnestness that, of course, makes everything seem all the sillier. Gibson doesn't disgrace himself, but he never breaks free of the film's pervasive sogginess, either. Foster probably figured that any humor would risk turning his performance into nutball vaudeville. At least that would have been entertaining.
Foster seems blinkered and tone-deaf to what's actually appearing onscreen. When, for example, Walter is reunited with his family – which includes his unconditionally adoring young son Henry (Riley Thomas Stewart) and the unforgiving 17-year-old Porter (the adept Anton Yelchin) – there's a quick sex scene where we see Walter, Meredith, and, yes, the beaver, frolicking together in bed. He addresses his toy-store workers, as he does everybody else, almost entirely through the hand puppet, and there are precious few reaction shots of them looking anything more than agreeably amused.
When Walter turns the company around and ends up on the cover of national magazines, and, puppet in hand, appears on "The Today Show," Foster's fable enters the realm of blithering unbelievability.
"The Beaver" never even makes it clear if Walter knows his puppet is just a puppet. He passes out cards to people explaining that he is utilizing a "prescription puppet," but that could just be the beaver talking. When the puppet becomes increasingly uppity and malevolent, I guess we're supposed to think that Walter is healing himself by separating himself from his alter ego and becoming whole again. But we never get a sense of what Walter was like before his personality fractured, so his impending wholeness doesn't have much heft.
The story line involving Porter is comparatively conventional, which, under the circumstances, is something of a relief. Even before the beaver shows up, Porter already hates his father so much that he papers his room with Post-its notating all of Walter's many traits he wants expunged from himself. He's the sole person who barks at Walter about how crazy he seems. Only when Porter becomes involved with a brainy cheerleader (a fine Jennifer Lawrence) with her own pack of troubles does he begin to register the compassion necessary to reunite with his father.
Or at least that's what we're supposed to believe. I've rarely seen a movie about severe malcontents that ended on such a note of unearned uplift. Who knows? Maybe it would have all turned out better if the beaver had been a bunny rabbit. Grade: C- (Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material, some disturbing content, sexuality, and language, including a drug reference.)