“I’m The Beaver, Walter, and I’m here to save your goddam life.”
The narrated montages of therapy sessions and pill bottles which open Jodie Foster’s frustrating new feature The Beaver, her first as director in 16 years, provide a quick signal as to the limits of first time writer Kyle Killen’s screenplay, a superficially original but ultimately wholly conventional and self-satisfied affair that uses its high-concept premise to sneakily administer a muddled dose of the worst type of American cinematic self-help medicine. One can see why the script sat at the top of the so-called Black List survey of the best unpublished screenplays a few years back, the set-up is ‘QUIRKY’ (capitalised, italicised, underlined and apostrophised), and on paper certainly sounds like an interesting prospect (self-hating manic depressive battles his demons through the medium of a gnarly beaver puppet he finds in a dumpster), all the more so when said self-hating manic depressive is played by Mel Gibson. It’s unfortunate then that of all the roads this idea could have travelled, that chosen is one of such dogged sincerity and conservatism, restraining the twitchy idiosyncrasies of its lead actor rather than encouraging any left-field choices beyond a bizarre, cockney inflected accent for the puppet in question. Short of a title card stating 'This Is A Drama, Not A Comedy', Foster clearly wants us to take the material seriously and works hard to normalise the strangeness of the set-up as swiftly as possible. Nervous of enjoying the inherent comedic elements that could trivialise the supposed worthiness and importance of Killen's take on mental illness, the film eschews any sense of irony in the hope that the viewer will accept the beaver as swiftly as the rest of Walter's (Gibson) world does in the film, and only once does Foster allow a character (herself, playing Walter's wife) to acknowledge what everyone is thinking, 'This is insane.'
Beyond the quickly established set-up, other elements of the screenplay feel like the constructs of a first time writer. That’s not to say that the dialogue itself is bad necessarily (although the denouement certainly has more than its share of clunkers), it’s that everything from character to narrative development serves merely as a cipher to the film’s overriding theme, that of ‘finding one’s voice’. Character beats are spoon-fed through expositional revelations, obviously symbolic and meaningful in the context of the limp message the film hopes to deliver but rarely authentic in any real-world sense, especially grating given Foster's determination to ground the film as much as possible, restraining any heightened elements to the point that everything from the costume and production design to Hagan Bogdanski's cinematography feel muted to the point of invisibility. The father/son relationships which dominate as a theme are painted with the broadest brushstrokes, with the hereditary facets of depression questioned glibly in the final sermonising summary as either “pain in your DNA” and “tragedy your birthright”, or not, as the case may be, “shit just happens”. Either way, the parallels drawn between Walter and his son Porter (Anton Yelchin), a gifted writer when using “other people’s voices” and who sells essays to his fellow students to save up for a “lose yourself trip” across America, prove crude and obvious at best.
There are plenty of ideas thrown into the mix, but few are developed beyond perfunctory acknowledgement. The film's swift 90 minute running time doesn't help, (sub)plot points aimed at creating a sense of universality to Walter’s condition are rushed through when they should have been excised, particularly the scenes of Walter working to develop an inexplicably successful beaver toy product for mass market through the toy company he inherited from his father.
The film’s biggest problem lies however in the mishandling of its tonal shifts. Killen clearly had an eye on Alan Ball’s screenplay for American Beauty (1999), but where that picture walked a tightrope between satire and sentiment with some degree of success, Killen struggles to find his balance, falling into bad Robin Williams movie territory with remarkable ease, the final act “You just need the courage to say ‘I’m not OK’” speechifying proving especially nauseating.
The Beaver isn’t, however, a total failure. Mel Gibson gives an especially committed performance within the remit of his director (it’d have been great to see what someone like Hal Ashby could have done with this material thirty years ago), even if it would have been great to see him given rein to let loose a little more with something like the unpredictability of his Lethal Weapon character. His mastery of the puppetry of the beaver is often a pleasure to watch, and dodgy accent aside, he imbues the varmint with a demented sense of personality and ego. The film becomes more interesting as it takes a darker turn two-thirds in, with an anniversary dinner scene particularly well played by both Gibson and Foster, but the final scenes which hinge around (a wasted) Jennifer Lawrence’s closing speech take any potential sting from the tail, with subversive elements swiftly squashed in favour of feel-good aspirations and a cloying picture of new-found liberation as the family take a ride on one of Foster’s rollercoaster designer’s creations.
The Beaver – 2011 – USA – 91 mins – Dir : Jodie Foster