The Beaver (2011)

18 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

With an odd title, a bizarre premise for a screenplay, and a lead actor that, given the news spread about his personal life, wouldn’t seem like a comfortable choice, “The Beaver” wouldn’t seem like anything special or even worth watching, for that matter. But I was pleasantly surprised to find myself loving this endearingly earnest drama about a man who uses a beaver puppet as a way of coping with his rock-bottom life and rising to make everything better.

Mel Gibson plays the man, named Walter Black, who is described via opening narration as a man who was a decent family man and a successful businessman working with toys, but has lately found himself to be so bored that he would just neglect everything in his life, including his wife and two sons.

Walter leaves the house. On his first night away, he stops at a hotel and contemplates suicide. But then, he stops himself and realizes that the only one that can save him now is himself. Although, instead of him revealing this to himself, he uses an old beaver hand puppet to speak for him, and to him, strangely. Who is “he?” The Beaver.

As the Cockney-accented Beaver, Walter attempts to get his life back on track. He spends time with his youngest son, makes his wife happy again, and even regains proper control of his toy company. But while this Beaver stuff is cute for a while, his wife starts to question her husband’s sanity and gets more concerned about him.

This is very well-handled and Jodie Foster, as director, has a nice visual style in the way she intersects certain sequences with everyday things to keep scenes interesting. She handles the characters with respect and intelligence and doesn’t talk down on them. Even her own character doesn’t go through all of the usual stuff we’re accustomed to seeing the reactive wife character go through. She’s actually a three-dimensional character, and she does have her limits.

Mel Gibson turns in an admirable performance as Walter Black. With everything that seems to be going on with him, you could say that his Walter is just a reflection of his own lifestyle. If you think that way, it could be unsettling and I can understand that. But separate the art from the artist and you have a deeply effective portrayal of a possible mental case of a man who has hit rock bottom and realizes he’s the only one who get his life back together again.

There’s a subplot involving Walter’s troubled teenage son Porter (Anton Yelchin) and his relationship with the popular cheerleader/class valedictorian Norah (Jennifer Lawrence). Norah hires Porter to write her graduation speech for her, and they develop a nice friendship together as they learn more about themselves. You could argue that this has little to no significance to the story involving Walter and the Beaver getting his life back together. But there are two reasons to tolerate it. The first is, there is some significance in that Porter doesn’t want to be like his father and yet his relationship with Norah sort of helps him realize that he can be who he wants to be, and that his father isn’t so bad after all. And the second is, even without the first, Yelchin and Lawrence share nice chemistry. Their scenes together are very sweet—as sweet as the “teenage-relationship subplots” (it should be its own obligatory element) in dramas like “The Ice Storm” and “Snow Angels.” Jennifer Lawrence turns in an excellent performance (when have you ever seen her do a bad job?) as making us feel for Norah, as she has her own skeletons in her closet.

“The Beaver” is a very effective drama, despite the expectations that I’m sure everybody has of it. If you can buy everything in this screenplay and respect the accomplishment that it was given, you’ll be just as pleased as I was.

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