I may be the only person alive who kinda likes the romantic comedy “Keeping the Faith.” It’s not a great movie. It features Jenna Elfman as an apparently irresistible love interest, so it’s at least partially doomed from the start. And Edward Norton somehow got it in his head that 128 minutes was an appropriate length for a slight romantic comedy.
What “Keeping the Faith” does that I admire, though, is that it takes a premise that seems like the set-up for a really cheap joke — “So a priest and a rabbi fall in love with the same woman…” — and finds a way to treat it more semi-seriously than one would ever expect or than you could ever have convinced anybody from trailers or promotion.
To be clear: The Jodie Foster-directed “The Beaver,” the film I’ve actually sat down to write about today, has absolutely nothing to do with “Keeping the Faith.” They share almost no common DNA beyond their similar basic medium.
What makes me link the two movies, in the most tenuous way possible — I promise that after this introduction, I’ll never mention “Keeping the Faith” again in this review or possibly ever again — is that “The Beaver” could easily be a bad joke writ large. “Mel Gibson plays a guy who goes a little nuts and begins to only speak through a tattered beaver puppet.” You hear that and you assume either that it’s a cheap punchline or that the Oscar-winning director had a particularly wild weekend and TMZ was there to film the whole thing. See? Cheap punchline! To counteract that perception, “The Beaver” has been marketed as an almost whimsical fairy tale of a movie, something about a main character who was only able to become a better man by becoming a better beaver.
The challenge is that “The Beaver” is neither of those two things. It isn’t the broad, lazy joke and it isn’t the maudlin, life-affirming, self-help movie.
“The Beaver,” which goes into limited release on Friday (May 6), is the kind of dark portrait of mental illness you rarely see on the big or small screen. Or at least that’s one of the movies that “The Beaver” is trying to be, the one I appreciated most. Unfortunately, there’s a wacky sitcom and a manipulative melodrama that are trying to force themselves onto the screen in “The Beaver” and neither Foster or writer Kyle Killen are quite strong enough to maintain the balance, though I found myself really respecting the effort.
More after the break…
“The Beaver” is the story of Walter Black (Mel Gibson), a formerly successful toy executive. Walter’s family has a history of clinical depression and he’s fallen into an anhedonic rut, which alienates his wife (Foster), his young son (Riley Thomas Stewart) and his teenage son (Anton Yelchin), who is beginning to fear his own similarities to his miserable father. At his absolutely nadir, kicked out of his house, Walter discovers a ratty beaver puppet in a garbage bin and the puppet begins to talk for Walter, or it begins to supersede Walter, with its working class British accent and its invigorated approach to life. The Beaver is a better boss than Walter was, a better father than Walter was and a better husband than Walter was. But is The Beaver making Walter better or is it making him far worse?
Kyle Killen is a smart writer. The “Lone Star” pilot was my favorite network pilot of last fall and I still feel some regret that we never got to watch that series develop (much less air a third episode). I’ve also read Killen’s script for the NBC pilot “REM” and if it doesn’t get picked up, it won’t be for lack of intellect (quite the opposite, probably). With “The Beaver,” his calling card for many years, Killen nails the mental side of things, but can’t quite settle on the proper nuanced approach to a fascinating central character. It’s not an uncommon problem with scripts as dazzlingly high concept as this one, with Charlie Kaufman’s output offering several comparable illustrations.
Sporadically narrated like a dysfunctional fairy tale, “The Beaver” weighted down by an awkward melding of moments where you have to suspend disbelief and then moments that demand you take the nuts and bolts very seriously. Walter’s character, the one who could easily pivot “The Beaver” into the realm of a Farrelly Brothers movie (see “Me, Myself and Irene”), is handled with utmost realism and empathy. We rarely hear Walter speak for the majority of the movie, but Gibson makes sure that we catch glimpses of the man between the times he’s commandeered by The Beaver.
If anything, it’s possible that Gibson is too good and that Foster was too willing to let the tone of Gibson’s performance steer the tone of the movie, rather than the tone of Killen’s script. There’s ample precedent for films and TV shows about clear lunatics who are enabled by the world around them. If you take a Chance from “Being There” or Willy Wonka and drop them into a realistic world, they would come across as truly damaged souls and you wouldn’t understand how they’d become media sensations or why anybody would allow their children to go on a guided tour by them. But there’s a stylization to both the universes of “Being There” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and to the performances by Peter Sellers and Gene Wilder/Johnny Depp. They match.
In contrast, Gibson never panders to the audience by making Walter seem like a lovable eccentric. He’s a man who needs serious help and his delusions are almost never endearing. But because Gibson is so grounded and so in-synch with this Walter’s issues, there’s no way a world can be crafted around him in which he could plausibly be enabled and yet there’s a long stretch of the movie in which The Beaver is actively embraced by characters who haven’t been thoroughly enough written to be plausible. Jodie Foster’s a great actress, but one or two shots of her looking yearningly at pictures from happier days past weren’t enough for me to buy why she would allow The Beaver (with Walter attached) into her life or why she’d let him spend unsupervised time with her son. Cherry Jones is a great actress, but she couldn’t sell why her character — a toy exec known only as Vice President — would stake her professional future on ideas generated by a beaver puppet attached to her lifeless former boss. In order for those things to happen, there has to be more lightness to the film and, crucially, more lightness to Gibson’s interpretation of the character. It’s mandatory that viewers have reason to pause and wonder at what’s happening in Walter’s mind, instead of just seeing a guy who has undergone what is indisputably a psychological break. There has to be more “He so crazy!” and less “He is so crazy.”
Also falling victim to the film’s “If you don’t want me complaining about the logic of things, don’t aspire to realism on other things” trap is the entire subplot between Yelchin’s Porter and his high school’s Beautiful Girl With Issues (Jennifer Lawrence). Lawrence’s Norah is such a poorly conceived assortment of backstory complications and frontstory issues that if you started to pick apart the reason she and Porter are brought together, half of the movie would unravel. They reason you talk yourself into caring is that Yelchin and particularly Lawrence are both excellent and the chemistry between them, also on display in the Sundance favorite “Like Crazy,” is effortless. That plotline concludes in a graduation scene that’s the hollowest in the entire movie and one that I assume Killen probably wrote and rewrote hundreds of times trying for a payoff that falls short.
I want to return quickly to what one could call The Mel Gibson Problem. Although I could easy have written a review that explains how “The Beaver” is a logical compliment to the actor’s personal issues — It’s very much about attempting to conquer private demons in a public way — I want to give Gibson the credit he deserves here. Although I’ve suggested that his performance may be directly responsible for the reasons the movie’s tone never comes together, that’s much more the fault of Foster and the “Beaver” editors. All Gibson has done is deliver one of the most committed performances of his career. As much utter disgust as I have for certain things he’s said and done in recent years, there isn’t an iota of “Mel Gibson as Mel Gibson” in Walter Black, so my Gibson baggage never came into play. People may choose to skip seeing “The Beaver” because of Mel Gibson, but once people get into the theater, it’s a character and an intriguing one at that.
“The Beaver” is at the crest of what may be a small wave of genre bending depictions of anthropomorphism as a manifestation of white male depression. FX’s “Wilfred,” which premieres in June, takes a more clearly comedic approach to what happens when your ego is about to jump off a bridge and your id takes the form of an otherwise uncommunicative animal. I’ve only seen the pilot for “Wilfred,” but for 22 minutes, it has a better grasp on its tone and its absurdities than “The Beaver” has. But that’s just 22 minutes, which isn’t the same as trying to sustain something over 90 minutes as Foster and Killen learn here. I don’t think “The Beaver” works, but I’m really glad that the filmmakers were able to get the movie made at all. It’s this sort of nearly courageous attempt to tackle difficult stories that helps to get other difficult stories told. “The Beaver” doesn’t wimp out and I respect it for that, even if I don’t love the result.
“The Beaver” is now in limited release.