Leave it to Gibson
By Jen Chaney
Friday, May 6, 2011
We’re supposed to look at the emotionally comatose, middle-aged protagonist in “The Beaver” and see one man: a so-called “hopelessly depressed” character named Walter Black.
But it’s initially impossible to look at Walter Black without seeing the actor who plays him: Mel Gibson, the once-beloved movie star best known lately for that series of angry rants recorded by ex-girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva. Please take note of the key words in that sentence: “initially impossible.”
Because here’s the astonishing surprise about “The Beaver”: Despite some missteps, this film stands as a moving portrait of a husband and father who reclaims his will to live with the unlikely help of a hand puppet. And the main reason it’s so moving? Mel Gibson.
In a triumph of cinema over celebrity gossip, “The Beaver” mostly makes us forget about Gibson’s madman persona and simply draws us into the story that he and director Jodie Foster, who also plays Walter’s wife, Meredith, want to tell.
That story begins with Walter, a man living apart from his spouse and two sons, sleepwalking through his job as a toy company CEO and self-medicating by drinking tequila from the bottle. He tries to commit suicide twice, and he can’t even pull that off.
He awakens after both attempts on the floor of his dingy hotel room with a furry, beady-eyed beaver puppet — a cast-off item from home that he hung on to — attached to his hand. Suddenly, Walter is talking to himself using the beaver as his proxy.
“I’m the only one that knows how you really feel,” the puppet/Walter says, adopting a cockney accent. He tells Walter to get up and pull himself together. And that’s precisely what the man does, returning home, beginning to slowly rebuild bonds with Meredith and their younger son, Henry (Riley Thomas Stewart), and rejuvenating his career, all while communicating via an inanimate dam builder that sounds like Michael Caine.
Few actors could hold a lengthy on-screen conversation with a beaver puppet and not only find the authenticity in it, but achieve real poignancy. But with every element of his performance, Gibson conveys the debilitating weight Walter carries. Even the lines in Gibson’s face convey a profound sense of grief. When he begins to find happiness again, it’s clearly such a relief, both to him and to the audience, that we can almost overlook that it all happened because he made friends with a Muppet.
Now, is Gibson’s work so strong because he’s drawing from his own struggles? Or do we subconsciously bring our knowledge of the actor’s back story to our viewing experience, thereby making it more touching? All that’s clear is that what Gibson does in “The Beaver,” with the steady guidance of his director and friend Foster, works perfectly.
What works less well for the film is the side plot involving Walter’s bitter older son, Porter (Anton Yelchin), a high-schooler who gets paid to write papers for other students, and Norah (Jennifer Lawrence), a whip-smart cheerleader who seeks Porter’s assistance in crafting her commencement address. The story line seems to primarily exist to emphasize that people in general are capable of playing pretend when the pain of life becomes unbearable. While that’s a valid point, it ultimately distracts too much from the central narrative of Walter’s journey.
During the movie’s third act — when Walter becomes famous for inventing a new, hugely successful toy and being (presumably) the only CEO in America who keeps an animal puppet on his hand — “The Beaver” starts to slip off the rails a bit, moving from weirdness grounded in reality to just plain weird. There’s also a drastic, practically whiplash-inducing twist that occurs near the end of the film, one that changes the emotional color palette from muted gray to pitch black. While it’s a perhaps necessary step toward bringing the movie to its conclusion, tonally, it feels off.
Those wrong notes aside, “The Beaver” deserves praise for making an earnest attempt to capture the fissures in a family, to show us how easy it is for people who love one another to become mere whispers in each other’s lives. And, yes, it does deserve praise for showing us that Gibson still has something to give as an actor, no matter what you may think about his personal choices.
There’s a scene late in the film when Walter, at the height of his newfound fame, appears on the “Today” show. During an interview with Matt Lauer, Walter attempts to explain why Americans are so fascinated with him.
“People seem to love a train wreck when it’s not happening to them,” he says.
Some people may come to “The Beaver” for the Mel Gibson train wreck. But ultimately, they’ll stay for a Mel Gibson performance that, in spite of the man’s reputation, still manages to shatter our hearts.
Contains mature thematic material, disturbing content, sexuality and language, including a drug reference.