Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Beaver

When discussing the long shelved Jodie Foster-directed film, The Beaver, there's really only one place to begin, and that's with it's star Mel Gibson.  The onetime matinee idol, Academy Award winning filmmaker who fell from grace within the Hollywood elite after years of erratic and upsetting behavior returns to headline a feature film.  It would be nice to think of a film being the ultimate redemption; it would be nice if The Beaver was that film.  However, perhaps the nicest thing about the project itself, an unstable mess of ideas and tone, is that it's leading man is surely the best thing about it.  In a performance that's odd and raw, almost unbearable in it's painful exactitude of mental anguish, Mel Gibson, perhaps playing a loosely veiled version of himself, or exacting some unforeseen Method-acting madness has never been so focused on screen before.  Whether in scenes of depression-induced lethargy or vodka-swigging mania, it's either a great performance or one hell of a train wreck; either way it's difficult to turn away.  There's a sad, and kind of sick desire to see how far this man-- he plays a hopelessly depressed man appropriately named Walter Black-- will go, and to what lengths Gibson will go.  That same intoxication however, cannot be said of the film itself, a relentless and often tedious mess that never quite knows what this is supposed to be: tragic drama, ultra dark comedy, after-school special, and it's difficult to know where the blame should be placed-- from first time screenwriter Kyle Killen, or director Foster, who co-stars as Gibson's long suffering wife.

Walter Black is hopelessly depressed, and in case that's too subtle with all of Gibson's acting tics, it's repeated endlessly.  The first lines of dialogue tell us so.  The narrator of this tale is "The Beaver", a sock puppet that Black finds in a dumpster who acts as his therapy to cope with his misery.  That misery also parades over his family-- wife Meredith (Foster), and sons Porter (Anton Yelchin), a teen who fears he's taking after his sad pop, and Henry (Riley Thomas Stewart), the saddest little boy to hit cinemas in quite some time.  "The Beaver" speaks with a blunt Aussie accent and acts as surrogate for Walter, and for a while at least it seems to work, even though the idea itself is completely nuts, and nobody around him seems to question it for a second.  Which may be the biggest problem of The Beaver, in that outside of the over-sized, curiosity of Gibson's mania, none of the other characters appear to make much sense, no matter the pedigree of the performers; Foster as director, but especially as actor here appears lost and fairly flat; there's little sense of urgency or immediacy to her character.

Porter gets a parallel story-- a senior in high school, and a pretty depressed lad himself-- he, like his father, uses another voice to get by as he writes other peoples school papers in exchange for money.  His latest assignment comes in writing the valedictory speech of the Norah (Jennifer Lawrence), a pretty cheerleader with a 4.0 grade point average, and depression of her own.  Yelchin and Lawrence's scenes are nicely acted, but are in completely different film of their own, and again, there's the whole question of what kind of film is this supposed to be.  There's little comedic beats (neither of them particularly funny) splattered around The Beaver, only to be followed by several of painstaking discomfort. And what does it all add up to?  The answer is nothing.

It seems strange that Foster, a director who has made a few fine films before (Little Man Tate and Home for the Holidays) appears to have lost nearly all her instincts here; it comes off strange and slightly amateurish.  And yet the only place to close would be with it's damaged star, and while that nice idea of a warm reception would certainly save a maligned career, it's that very damage that makes Gibson so fascinating here.  Another actor would never bring so much baggage to a part, and that's basically all there is to bring us in here.  There's little center to Walter Black, very little tangible relation to his character and the rest of the world.  All there is is that odd fascination between Gibson, the actor, a fine actor, and Gibson the target.  C  

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