Thursday, August 25, 2011

Save Your "Beaver" Puns

I don't know the last time I saw a Mel Gibson movie. Having skipped much of his directing career, I'm going to guess it was probably all the way back in 2002, when he made "Signs," and hadn't yet been at the center of all those ugly public blowups. So when I saw his latest film with Jodie Foster, "The Beaver," I was briefly taken aback. What had happened to Mel? Who was this tired, sad-looking actor who trying to sell the ludicrous premise of a depressed family man reconnecting with the world through a British-accented beaver hand puppet? I spent an hour and a half gawking at the man, and by the end of the movie had more or less come to terms with the fact that yes, it was Mel Gibson, and yes, he was playing this ridiculous role straight as an arrow. To his credit, he gives a tolerable performance as the hero Walter Black and Walter-Black-As-The-Beaver. It doesn't do the movie much good though.

The script places Walter Black at the head of a nuclear family of four. His wife Meredith (Jodie Foster, who also directed) tries to be supportive, an older son, Porter (Anton Yelchin), does good business writing papers for his high school classmates, and younger son Henry, (Riley Thomas Stewart), is often ignored. All have been adversely affected by Walter's depression, which has dragged on for two years by the start of the film. When Meredith finally asks him to leave the house, Walter attempts suicide. He is only stopped when the ratty hand puppet he randomly fished out of a dumpster manages to talk him off the ledge. So enters The Beaver into Walter's life, who quickly takes on the roles of father, husband, and CEO of Walter's company, and begins to rebuild Walter's life. I would make a Wally and The Beav joke at this point, but I suspect that reference is a tad too obscure these days.

But I digress. "The Beaver" takes the very serious subject of depression and treats it with all the seriousness and gravity it deserves. At the same time, it's trying very hard to be some kind of comedy, because Mel Gibson is walking around with a frickin' puppet on his left hand and talking in a funny voice. The trouble is, it's not funny. Not remotely. The film doesn't do a bad job of setting up The Beaver, so the audience can suspend disbelief and go along with the absurdity of the situation. But then it insists on sticking with this morose, dolorous tone, that sucks all the life out of the picture, and refuses to do anything interesting with The Beaver. I've never seen a story with this much potential for black comedy refuse to have any fun with its premise. Mel Gibson keeps a straight face, and he's good enough with the puppet that you might be able to buy The Beaver as a separate character, but they don't really use that angle. Nor does anyone question or test or challenge The Beaver except in the most predictable ways.

And then you have the whole subplot with Walter's son cozying up to the popular cheerleader valedictorian Norah (Jennifer Lawrence), who wants him to write her graduation speech for her. Theirs is a remarkably pedestrian teenage romance, centered around another contrived scenario that I had to struggle not to roll my eyes at. To be fair, the film does more with the graduation speech than it manages to do with the hand puppet, though it sledgehammers the message home awfully hard. I find it notable that "The Beaver" spares no time on developing the wife, the younger son, or the girlfriend in any meaningful way. Instead, they're convenient props for the two troubled men who spend the whole film meandering around in tepid emotional limbo. I understand that one is depressed and one is in high school, but the self-obsession is laid on awfully thick. It's fine for a film to be miserable, but not to the point where it becomes a bore.

The best thing I find that I can say about "The Beaver" is that it was a good opportunity to for Mel Gibson to show he still has his chops as an actor. What little enjoyment I got from the movie was purely due to his efforts. I'd like to see him pick himself up and mount a comeback someday. He definitely needs to pick some better material the next time around, but I'm glad that he's back.

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