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A Fine Madness

by Ross Douthat
A review of The Beaver

Before I went to see The Beaver, Jodie Foster’s tragicomic fable about a suicidal man who finds temporary salvation by communicating with the world through a Cockney-accented hand puppet, I felt nothing but sympathy for its screenwriter, Kyle Killen. Killen’s highly touted script spent years in development hell: At various times Jim Carrey and Steve Carell were attached to star, and in 2008 The Beaver topped the so-called Black List, an inside-Hollywood ranking of the best screenplays that then languished unproduced. Finally, in 2009, Foster took charge of the project, and cast her close friend Mel Gibson in the lead. For the long-suffering Killen, this combination must have been a dream come true — right up until the moment when, just months after The Beaver’s shooting wrapped, Gibson’s viciously profane phone calls to his ex-girlfriend, Oksana Grigorieva, were leaked to the press.

Since then, the only buzz around The Beaver has been the sound of scandal and self-destruction. While Gibson and Grigorieva fought things out in court, the film’s release date was pushed back and back and back, presumably in the hopes that moviegoers would eventually forget how its star sounded telling the mother of his child that she deserved to be gang-raped, among other fond endearments. Judging by The Beaver’s initial box office, that hope seems to have been a vain one. Gibson’s career may get resuscitated someday, but his first attempt at public rehabilitation looks dead on arrival.

So sympathy for the luckless Killen seems appropriate — or it would, at least, if his famous script actually lived up to its pre-production billing. Yet the irony is that while Gibson’s self-destruction wrecked The Beaver’s box-office prospects, his performance is the only thing that makes the film worth seeing. Commercially, Mad Mel destroyed Killen’s story. Artistically, he redeemed it.

Gibson plays Walter Black, a toy-company executive with a loving wife (Foster), two sons (Anton Yelchin and Riley Thomas Stewart), and a nasty case of clinical depression. The movie begins when his spouse, after years of grimly muddling through, finally reaches the end of her tether and evicts him from their suburban home, which leads in turn to an epic bender and an attempt at suicide. In the time between his visit to the liquor store and his decision to clamber up on a hotel-room balcony, though, Walter finds a ratty beaver puppet in a dumpster — and it’s that puppet’s sudden outburst, in a voice that sounds a lot like Michael Caine, that keeps Walter from throwing himself down ten stories to his death.

The voice actually belongs to Gibson, whose dialogue thereafter is mainly delivered via the beaver’s toothy maw. Using the pretense that Walter’s shrink supplied him with a “prescription puppet,” the beaver gradually reintegrates the depressive family man into his home and workplace. In both spheres, the puppet proves to be everything that Walter wasn’t: an active father, an uxorious husband (yes, the beaver comes to bed with them), and a font of brilliant corporate strategies. “I’m here to save your life,” the furry alter ego says to Walter, and for a while he does — until Foster’s wife gets tired of communicating exclusively through the puppet and demands her husband back, and the beaver turns out to be willing to fight dirty.

This narrative conceit — by turns bizarre and moving, hilarious and grim — has earned comparisons to such films as Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. But Killen’s dialogue doesn’t have the gonzo snap-crackle-pop of Charlie Kaufman’s work, and his story ends up slipping back into more conventional recovery-drama grooves. Worse, instead of keeping the focus on the extraordinary weirdness of Walter and his puppet, the script squanders almost half the movie on the romance between Walter’s older son, a budding depressive himself, and a tortured high-school classmate played by Jennifer Lawrence.

Yelchin is a fine actor and Lawrence (who had her breakout in last year’s Winter’s Bone) is luminous, but their angsts and issues are the stuff of Lifetime movies and afterschool specials. In the aftermath of her brother’s death, can a talented teenager conquer her demons and learn how to paint again? I don’t care: Give me more of the beaver.

And by the beaver, I mean Gibson. From his Lethal Weapon youth to his Braveheart middle age, Gibson has always been at his best in parts that unleash his manic side. Here, he’s rivetingly schizoid: All his charm and bonhomie gets filtered through the puppet, while the actual Walter is a ravaged nullity, a thunderhead illuminated by occasional lightning flashes of self-loathing. In a sense, knowing what we know about Gibson’s private life makes his performance hard to watch, since it’s hard to tell where the acting ends and the man himself begins. But that unsettling rawness, that sense of understanding his character’s torment from the inside, raises Gibson’s performance to a level well above the usual Hollywood attempts to wring drama (and Oscar nominations) from mental illness. It’s a shame that the rest of the movie isn’t quite up to the riveting standard that he and the bucktoothed puppet set.

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