POSTED ON JUNE 8, 2011:
Mel Gibson is back with a puppet, but The Beaver proves a bit too eager
Mel Gibson. Try an experiment and utter his name aloud to yourself. If you haven't been living under a pop-culture deprived rock the previous couple of years, just saying those two words causes all kinds of images and emotions to float to the surface. Ever since he brought the world his gruesome take on Jesus' crucifixion in 2004 (The Passion of the Christ), it has been a whirlwind trip through public relations hell for Gibson. Divorce. Drunk driving. Scabrous accusations of racism, homophobia, misogyny and antisemitism. Oksana. It's been one thing after another for the Australian actor/director.
I'm not sure a movie with Gibson sharing the bulk of the film with a beaver hand puppet is going to change the public's perception of all his ills, but there has never been a debate on the man's talent. It's just everything else connected to him that's lacking. The Beaver, directed by long-time Gibson defender and friend Jodie Foster, unspools some quirky charm early, but gets lost in a muddled quagmire by the end. It's not Gibson's fault. He gives a strange, haunted, desperate performance as a man attached to a hand puppet (!) that might be the deathblow or the salvation of his family.
Gibson plays Walter, a toy company executive who is completely lost in his inner abyss of depression and self-hatred. He's been kicked out of his nice suburban house by his wife (Foster), his kids are becoming as messed-up as he is, but he still prefers to spend his hours alone, in an alcohol fueled haze. Everything changes for Walter when he finds a beaver hand puppet in a garbage dump. Isn't that always the way?
Puppet salvation isn't immediate for Walter as he has to get a couple of semi-serious suicide attempts out of the way while wearing his newly found friend. When he wakes up with the puppet delivering a stern lecture to Walter (in a Cockney English accent, which adds to the weirdness), he comes to the quick conclusion that this hand puppet is magical and the key to saving his marriage and life. "The Beaver," as the puppet likes to be called, becomes a permanent fixture in Walter's life as a communication enabler to all the people at home and work who he can't relate to normally. Seems only natural.
You can imagine the reactions when Walter cleans up "The Beaver" and begins to take him everywhere he goes. People are freaked out, befuddled, amused, embarrassed and even angry. Walter is oblivious and continues to wear his hand puppet while in the shower, jogging or even (gasp) having sex. Now that is a sight I never expected to see: Gibson + Foster + beaver hand puppet = love scene. Let's all pause for a second to concentrate on the possibilities of that ménage à trois in all its glory.
When people see the difference "The Beaver" is making in Walter's life, they become more accepting and even encouraging. Unfortunately, that's when the film kind of takes a nosedive. The early moments of The Beaver have a dark comic zest to them that was actually kind of fun. The sight of a grown man and a beaver hand puppet speaking with a Cockney voice is anything but serious, yet Foster weighs the story down with a side dish on the angry teenage son and numerous messages that never hit home.
While watching The Beaver I couldn't help but think about the 2007 drama Lars and the Real Girl. Both have leading characters who are damaged in some way and depend on an inanimate object to rescue them emotionally from their situation. Both have characters in the film interacting with either a sex doll (Lars and the Real Girl) or a hand puppet (The Beaver). Both films ask the audience to suspend disbelief on the ridiculous action and dialogue taking place on the screen. At least The Beaver is less heavy-handed with its bizarro Capra-esque fantasy of community support than Lars and the Real Girl.
Let's return to Mel Gibson. It's unfortunate that he is such a social nitwit with his beliefs and actions because he truly is a talented actor. His three-decade plus career has included a varied list of drama, comedy, epics and yes, even Jesus. If only he had been wearing "The Beaver" on his hand when he was pulled over for the DUI. "The Beaver" might have even suggested a call to cab before he stumbled into a vehicle. Or, had he been with "The Beaver" when making those angry calls to Oksana, she would have had to delete them due to their silliness thanks to the Cockney accent. "The Beaver" may have allowed Gibson to communicate in a civilized manner that would have not included some of the venom he is forever linked to. But, there was no beaver hand puppet in Gibson's life and like most of us, he was forced to go it alone, responsible for his words and the impending disaster that they caused.
As a silly bit of black comedy The Beaver had a chance to rise above maudlin sentimentality, and its early sections hint at fun to be had. Who can't see some odd charm in a man with a beaver puppet on his hand? When Jodie Foster takes the film into more serious terrain, that's when it falters. Add in superfluous story elements regarding the teenage son's love life and The Beaver takes on a tone that hinders it with its increasing weight.
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