REVIEW: Jodie Foster Tackles the Tough Stuff, Mel Gibson in The Beaver
It can't be easy to put serious depression on the big screen. Forget that depression isn't widely understood or simple to understand -- its symptoms are just plain undynamic. Wanting to sleep all the time, or being unable to sleep at all; trying to hold your life together when it feels as if you're sleepwalking. How do you show those things and keep an audience awake at the same time?
It takes chutzpah even to try, and Jodie Foster can't quite pull it off with The Beaver -- the picture never really finds its footing, from the early moments, as whimsical music tootles on the soundtrack while a jaunty voice-over describes the lead character's predicament, to the end, which is almost supernaturally dark and grisly. But Foster is trying for something unusual here: At first The Beaver looks as if it might just be your typical movie dissection of middle-aged unhappiness, featuring that ubiquitous 50-something character who wakes up one day and realizes he has a lot of money, a really nice house, good kids, and -- stop the presses! -- still isn't happy. Foster, working from a script by Kyle Killen, never allows her movie to be that facile. The problems she's dealing with here are real, if not tangible or easily solvable. Whatever The Beaver's flaws may be, it's still a movie with real nerve endings, something we don't usually see on the mainstream movie landscape: Its subject matter isn't just midlife ennui, but true suffering.
How much you believe in that suffering depends somewhat on how you feel about the actor who's channeling it: Mel Gibson is Walter Black, a successful toy executive who, for reasons that he can't even begin to fathom, has bottomed out. He's drifted away from his family, including his hypercapable engineer wife, Meredith (Foster), and his two sons, grade-schooler Henry (Riley Thomas Stewart) and teenager Porter (Anton Yelchin). Early in the movie, the voice-over narration explains, "It's as if he's gone and hasn't had the good sense to take his body with him."
That disembodied voice belongs to another character -- or, rather, another aspect of Walter's character. After a comically botched suicide attempt, Walter discovers that he can be the person he wants to be -- the person that he knows he is, deep down -- when he's speaking through a rather ratty-looking beaver puppet. When the beaver speaks, the voice that comes out isn't Walter's -- it sounds like a cross between Crocodile Dundee and Ray Winstone, the sound of a wisecracker with his own particular brand of wisdom.
Walter's younger son responds with complete openness to this new form of communication. Meredith, who'd previously banished Walter from the house, welcomes him and his right-hand man back home, but warily: For understandable reasons, she's not quite sold on the idea of going to bed with a guy who's up to his forearm in beaver.
It's Porter who has the hardest time with his father's "cure": He's already filled with contempt for his father, to the point of trying to banish all of the qualities -- good, bad or benign -- he's inherited from him. He's also finding himself bewildered by a blossoming romance with the smartest girl in school, Norah (Jennifer Lawrence of Winter's Bone, in a low-key but extremely likable performance). The last thing he needs is to be embarrassed by his puppeteer dad.
Walter's finding his way out of the darkness, and away from his dependence on that puppet, provides the major dramatic momentum of The Beaver, and there isn't always enough horsepower there. Gibson is working hard, and simultaneously trying to make it look as if he's not working too much. At moments, I caught glimmers of the actor Gibson used to be -- intuitive, charming, emotionally unfettered. In one of the movie's sharpest scenes, Meredith gives Walter an anniversary gift, a "memory box" containing mementos of the couple's happier times. She's also made him temporarily banish the puppet, and all his frustration and fury comes to the fore: "The problem is depression, not amnesia," he blurts out, and the sensible straightforwardness of that statement might be the most honest and striking thing in Gibson's whole performance.
But the problem with being both an actor and a movie star is that even when you're acting your heart out, your persona follows you everywhere. The Gibson who's been exposed in the media these past few years -- a person who, the evidence strongly suggests, is an anti-Semite and generally an angry, abusive guy -- trails his performance in The Beaver like an ugly shadow. I wanted to have sympathy for Walter Black; but to get to him, I had to fight my way past Mel Gibson. When an actor has to make his audience work that hard, it's a liability.
Foster's performance is crisp and forthright and surprisingly moving. There's something affecting about watching this disciplined, no-nonsense actress deliver her lines to a hand puppet -- she's always game, if not exactly relaxed.
More significant, though, is her valiant attempt to make this somewhat unorthodox material something that almost everyone -- even those who are seldom troubled by more than the garden-variety blues -- can connect with. As a filmmaker, Foster likes sharp, clean lines -- individual scenes connect intelligently and logically, like linens folded neatly on closet shelves. Yet Foster clearly knows she's telling a very messy, unmanageable story. The puppet seems to know it too: Sometimes its face looks cute and cheerful; other times, you catch a demented gleam in its eyes. Foster has crept out on a limb here, showing us a grown-up human being who's in terrible pain, and for whom there are no easy answers. And if The Beaver isn't as effective as it ought to be, at least there's integrity in Foster's approach. She doesn't work the movie like a puppet; she lets it speak for itself.