Monday, May 16, 2011

Review: "The Beaver"

If ever there was a star-vehicle that had the odds against it, it was The Beaver, Jodie Foster's first directorial effort in 16 years. The story, put simply, is that of family man Walter Black (Mel Gibson) who uses a hand puppet to help himself out of a downward spiral. It's the sort of material that raised eyebrows from the very beginning, and not in a good way. Initial on-set images showed Gibson in jogging gear running with a beaver puppet on one hand. Internet reactions were, to put it mildly, not kind. And perhaps that initial skepticism was somewhat deserved, because, like Black Swan, The Beaver is a film that could have been a laughable mess in the wrong hands. Thankfully, under Foster's guidance, Kyle Killen's script blossoms into a solid film filled with nice work from a talented cast.

Rather than take time chronicling Walter's journey to rock bottom, the film starts us off with him already there. It's not even 15 (maybe not even 10) minutes in before Walter discovers the puppet, and even less time before he brings his British (Australian?) alter-ego to life. Such a quick set-up left me wondering how long the film could keep up its momentum, even at a 90 minute run time. But Killen's script, as aided by Foster's clean direction, knows what it's doing, and the film never lags or becomes aimless. Despite the potentially weighty subject matter, The Beaver flows beautifully from scene to scene, and Foster handles the shifts between light comedy and drama expertly. Killen's treatment may not necessarily be the deepest exploration of depression/schizophrenia, but it still rings true, despite the seemingly outlandish conceit.

Adding to the film's success is the terrific cast. Gibson does strong work as a man trying to distance himself from the dark side of his personality. The performance never condescends, and Gibson's recent troubles, for better or for worse, help give the performance a truly lived-in feel a la Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler. However, if there's one hindrance Gibson has to deal with, it's that he spends so much of the movie behind the puppet, which can make the performance seem too light. As Walter's wife, Jodie Foster delivers another solid performance, making her double duties as director and star seem effortless, and making this writer wish she would appear on screen more frequently. Winter's Bone star Jennifer Lawrence does a nice job as well, albeit with less to do, as a local girl who starts up a relationship with Gibson and Foster's son, played by Anton Yelchin (Star Trek).

I've saved Mr. Yelchin for last because he is, surprisingly, the film's acting highlight. Believe it or not, the script saves the most characterization and depth for Yelchin's role, a high school senior who has made his life's goal to divorce himself of any similarities he shares with his father. This is complimented by a subplot wherein his character writes essays for fellow students, doing his best to get inside their heads so he can write with their voices. The subplot may not be entirely resolved by the film's end, but it certainly rounds out the movie's, especially when the struggles of Foster's character sometimes feel shortchanged. Like Foster, Ms. Lawrence is also in a role that isn't used to its full potential, and a subplot involving her passion for graffiti art isn't fleshed out enough to matter as much as the film wants us to believe it does.

But whatever faults the screenplay may have, The Beaver, against all the odds, is a success. It doesn't sink into melodrama with its treatment of mental illness. Rather, it takes a lighter route while remaining respectful, which aids the overall effect. Bolstered by strong work from the cast, and Foster's level direction, The Beaver is a classic example of a potentially troublesome screenplay brought effortlessly to life with respect and care.

Grade: B

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