MOVIE REVIEW: The Beaver

THE BEAVER-- 3 STARS

Some actors during their careers had a point where they became polarizing personas, not for the daring roles they took on-screen, but for their lifestyle choices off-screen.  Lately, the poster-child has been Tom Cruise's couch-jumping and brow-beating Scientology views.  Joaquin Phoenix's fake retirement and terrible interviewing gets him in the team photo too.  Then you have the guys that have had the "quirky" tag for years like Sean Penn, Jeff Goldblum, Crispin Glover, Gary Oldman, Christopher Walken, and even Robert Downey, Jr..  Is the quirky label fair or are they daring?  Are they eccentric or calculated?  Are they crazy or are they actually brilliant?

Well, Mel Gibson might be the unofficial president of the Polarizing Club. He's got Tom Cruise beat when you count up all of the drunken, racist, mega-Catholic, anti-gay, anti-semitic, misogynistic, and abusive things that have come out of his mouth and actions.  The list is long and he has most certainly alienated a great many people over the years while transitioning from a full-time actor to a equally-controversial filmmaker (2004's The Passion of the Christ and 2006's Apocalypto).

The question of us, the audience, becomes: can you separate the man from the movie?  There are many people out there who won't watch a Tom Cruise, Mel Gibson, or Sean Penn film on principle for who they are or what they stand for, not because of the movie.  That very likely is going on with Mel Gibson's newest film, The Beaver, directed by his good friend and fellow multiple Academy Award winner, Jodie Foster.

Are you willing to watch a good actor at work, or is the mugshot all you see and the infamous voicemails and soundbites all you hear? Where you come from with your perspective on that essential question will (unfortunately) factor into how well you like or dislike The Beaver.  

This reviewer is one of those people who can separate the man from the actor and take movies and performances for what they are worth.  From that angle, The Beaver arrives as a fascinating character piece on depression, family relations, and masking one's true inner feelings.  Those who will dismiss The Beaver because of Mel's reputation will miss out on his best performance in years and great work behind and in front of the camera by Foster. 

In The Beaver, we meet Walter Black (Gibson), the CEO of a downtrodden toy company.  For years, he's been lost in deep depression, with causes unknown, and is a shell of the father, husband, and businessman he used to be.  His two sons, a toddler too young to know and a teenager, Porter (Anton Yelchin of Star Trek and Alpha Dog) too old to forget, don't know him anymore.  His wife, Meredith (Foster), has lost him as well and has tried every remedy of supportive therapy to stand by her man.  She decides that it's time for Walter to move out.

In a drunken hotel bender, Walter tries unsuccessfully to kill himself but instead hears a voice and finds a beaver puppet in the dumpster.  That voice is his own, but in a low half-Cockney/half-Australian accent, and it's spoken through the puppet.  The outlet of the puppet, representing Walter's inner voice now on the outside it seems, starts to usher in the motivation and change Walter needs in his life.  He reignites passion with his wife, inspires a hit new product at work, and reconnects with his youngest son.

The biggest conciliatory challenge is Porter.  He doesn't buy this new Walter one bit and lobbies Meredith to divorce Walter.  Porter, a cynical high school senior loner who documents the troubling similarities between himself and his father, uses his smarts to illegally ghost-write his classmates papers for tidy profits.  His newest customer is the seemingly-perfect Norah (recent Academy Award nominee Jennifer Lawrence of Winter's Bone and the upcoming X-Men: First Class), the class valedictorian, who pays him to write her upcoming graduation address and takes a liking to him.

The Beaver is not your typical family-on-the-edge-of-divorce drama.  The arguments, reasons, and roots of how our Black family got to this point over the years is smoothly left out, creating a chance for the audience to imagine it on their own and focus on the present.  Depression is center stage for sure and Walter is the one to blame, but, in a way, we're not given enough history to see where Walter came from or where Porter lost touch.

The key factor that either sells The Beaver for you or loses you in ventriloquist-induced eye-rolling is Gibson's performance.  People forget that Mel Gibson is a hell of an actor and can play internal conflict (maybe from personal experience) like few others around.  Gibson, in just second starring role in nine years since 2002's Signs (coupled with last year's under-performing Edge of Darkness), brings an incredible dramatic edge to the part of Walter that previously attached stars Steve Carrel and Jim Carrey would have soiled with bad physical comedy.  Mel becomes as serious and tortured as the depression itself, and it's some of the best work of his career.  Once again, that is a contingent on whether or not you can separate the actor from the man for Mel Gibson.  There will be a big group of casual moviegoers that, no matter how impressive the performance, is just not going to buy an actor speaking through a puppet or a story that has people implausibly accept that as an outlet for depression, let alone that it's Mel Gibson present.

Gibson is well supported by great work from Jodie Foster.  As a director for the first time in 16 years (far too long for her talent), she still has a keen creative eye for domestic settings just as she did in her other family-based features, Home for the Holidays and Little Man Tate.  On screen, she's still the best actress of her generation and it's her strength as Meredith that adults will most identify with.  Like most good actresses over 40 (Foster is 48, creeping up on the "uncastable" age of 50), she doesn't get enough good roles anymore, yet makes great one for herself here.

The subplot in The Beaver that arguably steals the show, if that's possible with Mel's attention-getting performance, is the Porter-Norah friendship/romance of Anton Yelchin and Jennifer Lawrence.  Jodie Foster and the screenplay wisely spend time developing Porter's arch of either accepting the father he misses or conquering the internal quest to not end up just like him.  He becomes the point-of-view and emotional center of the movie, to much surprise, and brings Norah's own issues in for good measure.  Still, just like Porter himself, if you can't handle depression or allow a man to talk to you through a puppet, then you too will tune Walter and The Beaver out.

LESSON #1: THE MANY POSSIBLE OUTLETS FOR DEPRESSION-- Contrary to fellow Polarizing Club member Tom Cruise's assertions that chemical imbalance, like depression, doesn't exist, we all know depression does exist and it's a commonly occurring problem that affects many types of people in very different ways.  No case is alike.  For some, medication and counseling do the trick to repair what's needed, while, for other cases, more extreme and personal outlets manifest.  Whether it's artistic expression (Norah), self-inflicted physical harm (Porter), or a raggedy puppet you make talk (Walter), an outlet is better than not dealing with the problem at all.

LESSON #2: THE EFFECT OF DEPRESSION ON FAMILY-- Depression can seep into a family like ice cracking a rock.  Marriage, stresses, and complacency, among other causes, can slowly build over time and change people for the worse by manifesting depression.  Though we don't see the history with the Blacks, we do see the affected present caused by Walter's long-standing distance.  Depression can erode a marriage, a family, and a job.  That's why the therapeutic outlets of Lesson #1 are necessary and more helpful than denying the problem.

LESSON #3: INNER VOICE VERSUS OUTER VOICE--  No, this isn't about a mother telling her loud kids to use their "inside voice" or an unfrozen Austin Powers without an inner monologue.  This about the difference between one's inner thoughts and feelings and the separate outer expression to communicate with others.  In our lives, we are equally relieved at times and burdened at other times by the feelings we "got off our chest."  By talking through a puppet, we are left to debate who's representing the real Walter, the Beaver or Walter himself.  Which voice or point-of-view is his true personality coming through and which one is the act?