May 17, 2011
By Sean O. Murphy
It’s a painfully obvious pun, but “The Beaver” bites off more than it can chew. It’s a movie that can’t decide if it is a dark comedy or a poignant look at the effect of mental illness and depression on families. Taken as a black comedy, it never seems to really get flowing, and most laughs are dammed up to weak, uncomfortable chuckles. If it is meant as a real look at depression and mental illness, the effect is somewhat dampened by its choice in casting.
Walter Black (Mel Gibson) is, we’re immediately told in voice-over narration, a “hopelessly depressed individual.” He sleepwalks through life; nearly running his late father’s successful toy company into the ground, alienating his wife (Jodie Foster) and watching his sons Porter (Anton Yelchin) and Henry (Riley Thomas Stewart) follow the same sad path as the father. Life just doesn’t seem worth living anymore, so Walter decides to end it all. After a night of drinking and extreme depression, Walter attempts to kill himself unsuccessfully twice but is rescued by a hand puppet. The beaver hand puppet, found by Walter in a dumpster, becomes Walter’s companion and way of communicating with the world.
Why doesn’t this film work? A movie about a suicidal man having a psychotic break with reality and turning his life over to a ratty hand puppet with a vaguely cockney accent (something like Ray Winstone or Michael Caine) sounds like a solid enough premise for a Hollywood movie, right? It might work if it weren’t for the very public personal problems of its lead actor.
Gibson has become a very controversial figure, and some may think the actor might have some special understanding of the role of a man suffering mental illness. Gibson is always at his best portraying characters that are more or less a little unhinged, but some may wonder if Gibson doesn’t play the role a tad too well.
“People seem to love a train wreck, when it’s not happening to them,” says Walter in this film.
It’s as true for Walter as it is for Gibson, Charlie Sheen or the latest derailed celebrity. Gibson still has his supporters, and among them is Jodie Foster as director of this, her third film to direct. Foster showed bravery in the casting of her friend at a time when others might not have taken the risk. As much as I want to sympathize, there were times there was just too much disbelief to suspend, and that distracted me from the story the film was trying to tell about depression and family.
As for the other performances; Anton Yelchin portrays Porter with talen, and the subplot with brainy but beautiful Jennifer Lawrence almost steals the film. Porter’s conflicts as the son of a man who is clearly mentally ill are at least as interesting as the main storyline, and made me wish that Yelchin received more screen time.
Mel Gibson is still a fine actor, and despite the film’s ridiculous premise, he is still able to shine in a few moments. But in the end, “The Beaver” is weighed down too much by Mr. Gibson’s personal baggage.