Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here.
It's not my job to predict how a film will do at the box office, for the plain and simple reason that a film's quality and it's box office success are almost never connected. And anyone reading this who equates box office success with quality films should stop reading and strap on a dunce cap with an unbreakable lock. But if I were a betting man, I'd guess that the Jodie Foster-directed THE BEAVER was either going to absolutely kill at the box office due to morbid curiosity, or it will never catch on because of a combination of its pitch dark subject matter and the presence of Mel Gibson, whose eventual and inevitable comeback is due very soon (hopefully with a big push from this film).
But none of that really interests me, because if you choose not to see THE BEAVER, you'll be missing the first Oscar-worthy performance in 2011, one that I firmly believe will stick until awards season kicks in at the end of the year. And rather than attempt to erase from memory all of Gibson's antic and taped ravings in the past couple of years, feel free to embrace them and put them at the front of your mind as you watch him play Walter Black, a toy company executive who has fallen into a deep depression and is clearly headed toward suicide. There are things Walter says about himself, his self worth, his pain, and sanity that feel so much like a confession straight from Gibson that you have trouble remembering who is talking. And it's one of those rare moments when art and life collide like two bullet trains to make something bigger than the sum of its parts.
After a half-hearted, failed suicide attempt that takes place after his long-suffering wife Meredith (Foster) reluctantly kicks him out of their home because his near-comatose behavior is tearing them apart as a family, Walter finds a discarded beaver hand puppet. Although strangely enough, Foster never shows us the moment Walter puts the puppet on and gives it its cockney British voice, he decides that from that point forward all communications to and from Walter should go through the puppet, known simply as The Beaver. And what's even stranger is that The Beaver seems to have his shit together and makes better decisions (personally and at the office) than Walter has in months. And The Beaver is a real character, making jokes, giving advice, all the time with Walter standing in the background as much as he can looking very pensive about his new spokesperson.
The film's main subplot involves Walter's oldest son, Porter (Anton Yelchin of CHARLIE BARTLETT, TERMINATOR SALVATION, and STAR TREK), who is wildly intelligent but not smart enough to stay out of trouble as he runs a successful paper-writing business at his high school. He can not only write quality papers, but he spends time with those for whom he's writing to mimic their voice in the paper. Porter falls for Norah (WINTER'S BONE's Jennifer Lawrence), a beautiful cheerleader at the school, who also happens to be at the top of her class. She wants to hire him to write the graduation speech she must deliver but has no passion about doing so. Almost every group and club she's a part of is for transcript filler, so she's gone through life with no real enthusiasm, much like Porter. Both have secrets, both have troubling traits (Porter bashes his head into his bedroom wall when he gets angry), so it only makes sense that they are drawn to one another.
But the difficult thing about watching THE BEAVER is that the subplot doesn't merge very well with the main story about Walter and The Beaver. Porter loathes his dad, while his younger brother, Henry (Riley Thomas Stewart), seems to grow closer and more attached to Walter/Beaver than he has in a while. I found both stories fascinating, but not equally so. How could they be? As a result, every time the film cuts away from Gibson, my interest decreased. Fortunately, that doesn't happen all that often, and what we're left with is a staggering, sometimes frightening look at mental illness and the ways all of us cope with our shortcomings as human beings and good people. For the film's brief (too brief in my estimation) 90-minute running time, we are given a fascinating profile of a type of treatment that could either result in a much better man once the puppet goes away, or one in which The Beaver totally devours the man.
The films isn't a complete downer. Especially in the film's first half, Foster peppers in a great deal of humor before hurling us into Walter's abyss. The former black-listed script by Kyle Killen isn't exactly trying to balance the funny and the pain, and, as a result, some critics have complained about the "tone" of THE BEAVER. But I believe that Killen's words and Foster's direction (she has previously helmed LITTLE MAN TATE and HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS) are appropriately schizophrenic and meant to reflect Walter's state of mind. The scenes with Porter and Norah have a different, more relaxed tone than the ones in which The Beaver is struggling to subjugate Walter's depressed state. Tone was never an issue for me because I believe to my core it was intentional.
The Beaver persona comes up with a new toy idea that sets the world on fire, and soon Walter/Beaver are doing the talk show circuit. As much as these sequences might sound gimmicky, I believe they actually convey how a person like Walter would be received and treated in today's pop-culture-fueled American society. He becomes an instant celebrity, naturally.
I haven't really mentioned Foster's performance because it's tough to judge. Hers is a reactive role, and with the exception of a great scene set at a romantic dinner on the couple's anniversary, she doesn't really get a shot at cutting lose as an actor the way Gibson does. Perhaps that is Foster the director making certain no one (including herself) overshadows the deep cuts that Gibson is putting into Walter. With this character, Gibson isn't just giving a performance; he's front loading all of his exquisite self-doubt into the man, and the result is extraordinary, possibly the single best work he's ever done. Anxiety lives in his eyes, but then he pushes that damn puppet at the camera, and the world seems better. I don't mean to ignore Gibson's puppeteering, which is actually quite expressive and moving. It's the complete package, and even if you find fault with the movie, I doubt any of your issues will have to do with Gibson.
THE BEAVER is a profile of a man and his family in crisis. Foster wisely always keeps a thread of hope alive that all members of the family are striving for the same outcome, but leaves open the possibility that things may not end well for the Blacks. Although the son's subplot is equal parts distracting and compelling, I wouldn't have necessarily cut it, since both Yelchin and Lawrence elevate the material well beyond the page. The thing I missed most is Foster the actor, who we really haven't seen act in a proper movie since 2007's THE BRAVE ONE. I know she's just wrapping Roman Polanski's CARNAGE right now, and I can't wait to see that, but her selfless work in THE BEAVER robs us of two great performance. I guess I'm greedy. I kind of can't wait for you to see this film and judge Gibson, the actor, on those terms alone, without all of the noise surrounding him now. There is no possible way you won't be impressed on some level with his work and the film.
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