Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Radical Therapy: THE BEAVER

The Beaver is a film with good ideas, good performances, and good effort, but it doesn’t add up to a good movie. It’s nearly there, but not quite. I enjoyed each individual piece, to a point, but there’s a sense that with just a bit more prodding, with a push just a bit farther, the whole could be much more than good. It could even be great. Instead, we’re stuck nearly there. We can see greatness from here even if we can’t quite reach it.

In the film Mel Gibson plays Walter Black, a deeply depressed and alcoholic executive of a failing toy company. When we first see him, he’s presented as a man who once was a huge success but has had his professional reputation and personal relationships crippled by his mental illness. Because of the resonances with Gibson’s personal life that have left him an incredibly unpopular figure – his alcoholism, his abusiveness, his signs of mental illness – this dark comedy gets off too a painfully realistic start. Walter’s wife (Jodie Foster) and two sons, one a moody teenager (Anton Yelchin), the other a precocious grade-schooler (Riley Thomas Stewart), are starting to think he won’t get better. He spends all of his spare time, and most of his workday, sleeping when he’s not trudging along barely alert.

After a bungled suicide attempt, Walter finds himself talking through a beaver puppet that he pulled out of a dumpster. The beaver talks to him, encourages him, and gets him back to a state of confidence and alertness that his family and his colleagues find surprising in its speed and its apparent insanity. Walter walks through life a new man, almost literally. He wears the puppet on his hand at all times, speaking through it and for it in a thick brogue. It’s a complicated dance of identity and neurosis.

Gibson is playing two characters that are also two aspects of one character. It’s tricky territory, at once darkly funny and bleakly emotional, but Gibson pulls it off in a truly good performance. It’s not easy, but its power comes not just from its novelty or level of difficulty. This is some fine acting. Also quite good is the supporting cast that surrounds the central joke and dysfunction of the film. Foster (who also directs) is nicely rattled yet hopeful about it all and little Riley Thomas Stewart is awfully cute.

Meanwhile, Yelchin gets a fairly meaty subplot featuring a romance with a fellow high-schooler played by Jennifer Lawrence. So good in last year’s Winter’s Bone, Lawrence plays her character with a wounded fragility covered up by her cheerleader valedictorian status. She and Yelchin have an easy, unforced chemistry. Unfortunately, their story is neither fleshed out enough to be a compelling subplot nor satisfying enough to be merely a sweet footnote. They’re good enough to deserve a movie all their own.

The movie is swamped by the story of Walter Black. All else fades into the background, much like the presence of Gibson has distracted press from the actual movie itself. Walter sets the tone of it all, a dark, depressive sadness that leeches through its outer covering of quirk. Kyle Killen’s screenplay takes strange turns and is loaded up with obvious symbolism (sticky-notes listing similarities between two characters, a hole in the wall, a memory box, a paper-mache brain) and overly explanatory emotional reveals which have characters just flat out speaking their feelings in improbably ways. Foster’s solid direction holds things together, but the film ultimately doesn’t add up. There was so much to like about what was on screen that I almost couldn’t believe it when the credits rolled and I felt the whole thing come up empty.

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