How seriously are we supposed to take The Beaver? The fact that the film is about a man who wears a tatty beaver puppet on his hand for the duration of the movie suggests that there's comedy to be found in Jodie Foster's film, but Foster herself doesn't seem to see it that way. She and screenwriter Kyle Killen seem to go to great lengths to normalise this situation and use it to explore the traumatic family ties that bind depressed toy company CEO Walter Black (Mel Gibson) with his wife (Foster) and two sons. As I watched The Beaver, I kept waiting for its straight face to crack, but the film seems perversely determined to sidestep any hints of frivolity inherent in the premise. This is a drama about issues and a film in which everyone learns from their experiences to grow closer before the credits roll, but the potential was there for a darker, funnier and more incisive movie, and I spent much of The Beaver thinking about the road not taken.
It's little wonder my thoughts continually drifted to the movie The Beaver might have been, because the movie that actually played out on the screen was often too tedious and irritating to contemplate. Part of the film's problem is its skimpiness. At 90 minutes, there's not enough room to explore the themes raised in the film with any depth, and it comes of looking like an insultingly glib view of depression. When we first meet Walter, his malaise has already taken hold, so we get no sense of the man he was before he went off the deep end. A voiceover sets the scene as we watch Walter pack up his belongings and leave his exasperated but concerned wife Meredith (Foster), checking into a motel where he drinks himself into a stupor and slides inexorably towards the decision to take his own life.
Salvation is found in an unlikely source. Walter impulsively retrieved a tatty old beaver hand puppet from the trash on his way to his motel, and this beaver pulls him back from the brink just as he's about to end his life. To be more accurate – Walter starts talking to himself through the beaver, adopting a cockney accent and giving himself little pep talks. As arbitrary as this plot development is, the filmmakers run with it nonetheless, but they don't get far before the thinness of this conceit is exposed. Having failed to make me believe in the depths of Walter's depression, The Beaver similarly failed to make me believe in the cure. Why does he adopt this puppet as his communication tool, even going so far as to forge a doctor's note recommending the use of it? It feels like a contrived plot point rather than an organic, convincing development, and throughout The Beaver, Walter's fluctuating fortunes feel more like beats the screenplay has to hit than anything real.
None of the blame for this lies at Gibson's feet. He is as committed as possible to the role, and his puppetry is excellent, but he feels ill-suited to the character. Gibson has played characters teetering on the verge of insanity many times in the past, but while those characters have often displayed a dangerous, manic edge, Walter is disappointingly withdrawn, and Gibson's inert performance doesn't give him the opportunity to remind us what an excitingly unpredictable performer he can be. Even when Walter finds himself battling against his own beaver-clad hand – in a scene reminiscent of Ash's "Who's laughing now?" from Evil Dead 2 – he seems curiously lacking in energy. Mel Gibson remains a fascinating actor, and he'd be my first pick to play an emotionally unstable individual such as Walter, but Foster's direction saps whatever magic he might have brought to the role.
This is a curious project for Jodie Foster to take on. She has attacked her recent acting roles with a grim seriousness and she allows nothing to get in the way of the emotional uplift and universal learning curve that she pushes The Beaver's characters through. Even the film's quirkier elements (such as Walter's son Porter (Anton Yelchin) documenting similarities to his father in hundreds of post-it notes) feel calculated; and while the film may have found room to treat Walter's depression in a less trite manner had it entirely jettisoned its tedious subplot (involving Yelchin and equally troubled teen Jennifer Lawrence), I still think Foster's inability to find the required tone would have sunk it. For the most part, The Beaver feels like a terribly awkward and confused movie, never sure whether to venture into darkness or reach out for a hug and failing to commit to any tone satisfactorily. When I left the screening I felt The Beaver was a total fiasco, but perhaps that's harsh. All things considered, it just feels like a wasted opportunity, and in some respects that's even more disappointing.