For a movie about a guy who practices self-therapy with a Beaver puppet on his hand, The Beaver turns out to be surprisingly unoriginal. The new comedic drama from director Jodie Foster, which stars her and Mel Gibson, takes a whole slew of stories and themes from previous films and rehashes them into a middling work of cinema.
This banality is clear from the opening sequence. While a voiceover describes Walter Black (Gibson), the CEO of a toy company, as a man with severe depression, we recall similar scenes with Nicolas Cage in The Weather Man and Kevin Spacey in American Beauty. Like those veteran actors, though, Gibson gives an unforgettable performance as the central character. His turn offers the film just enough humanity to keep the trite ideas it's built upon from completely collapsing.
The clunky story centers on Walter who, after being kicked out of his house and attempting suicide twice, finds support in a ragged Beaver hand puppet. He tells his wife (Foster), sons, and employees that his psychiatrist prescribed it, but he's really just found his own way to treat his illness.
Foster, like the trailer depicts, tries to capitalize on this seemingly clever premise. Walter voices The Beaver with a thick British accent. He works, exercises, and showers with it on his hand. The concept boasts humor and innovation, though it's really nothing new; Lars and the Real Girl used an unlikely catalyst to bring redemption to a hurting man and the people around him.
The subplot is even more hackneyed. As Walter's older son, Porter, Anton Yelchin takes on the archetype of the rebellious son with daddy problems. Porter, a bitter high school nerd, hates his father. He writes down their shared traits on notes and posts them on his bedroom wall to make sure he doesn't become him. But Yelchin shouldn't be blamed. He's convincing enough. His character just feels too familiar. He could be replaced by Hayden Christensen in Life as a House or the younger brother in The Squid and the Whale.
Alas, this part of the story only gets shoddier. As Porter falls for the popular girl at school, another tired persona filled by Jennifer Lawrence (Winter's Bone), The Beaver starts to take on the characteristics of a clichéd teen movie. Porter, the nerd, gets Norah (Lawrence), the cheerleader and, in the process, discovers that she isn't the snobby, shallow person he thought she was. With two films already under her name, Foster should know better than to delve into such uninspired muck. We've seen it all too much for there to be any real effectiveness.
Still, when Walter and Porter's stories come together, Foster gets the opportunity to redeem the film for its social commentary potential. The conclusion lends itself well to some insight on the human condition, dabbling in themes of faith and forgiveness, not to mention Freudian notions of the id and ego. But Foster doesn't dig deeply enough into such complexities, and opts out of saying anything of spiritual or political value.
In one rare segment that dares to go deeper—when we learn of Walter's past—Gibson provides enough complexity to let us see inside his character. There's also a startlingly compelling scene where he makes war with The Beaver, juxtaposing an inward battle into a physical battle that makes us both laugh and contemplate the degree of his struggle and, perhaps, that which we actually fight against.
Despite his moral failures, Gibson has always been outspoken about his Christian faith. With him in the lead role, there's a certain expectation for the film to carry some weight, but that's not the reality. It's as if he and Foster, an atheist who is gay, differ so drastically in their worldviews that they agreed to keep The Beaver just shallow and politically correct enough to avoid conflict.
Whatever the case, the film certainly doesn't make any statements about our culture's concept of family or the moral implications of depression, nor does it really highlight the empathy and forgiveness that bring redemption to Walter and his family. Instead, it settles for superficial sentimentality. This invokes emotions and makes us feel sorry for the characters, especially Walter, but it doesn't enlighten or challenge us, which serious art should do.
The Beaver simply doesn't reach the level of greatness that a film with this type of premise must have to work. Gibson and Yelchin elevate the material, but in the end they can't do enough to make up for a lack of depth, insight, and imagination.Discussion starters
- Does Walter's character highlight any truths of human nature? Think of examples. Is the beaver puppet really the catalyst for Walter's redemption? If not, what is? Does Walter even experience redemption?
- Can redemption exist without God? In other words, can those who reject Christ really experience redemption?
- When Walter battles The Beaver, who is he really battling? As we navigate through sin, do we battle ourselves or do we battle the enemy? Is it both? How does that work?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
The Beaver is rated PG-13 for mature thematic material, some disturbing content, sexuality and language including a drug reference. In a bloody and brutal scene, a character cuts off a bodily limb with an electric saw. Walter and his wife are shown having sex in few short sequences which don't contain nudity or seductive imagery. Walter uses profanity fairly excessively in several intense moments.
Photos © Summit Entertainment
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