Monday, May 23, 2011

The Beaver: A Falling Star's Attempt to Rediscover Life, Both On and Off the Screen

The Beaver
Directed By: Jodie Foster
Written By: Kyle Killen
Starring: Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, Anton Yelchin, and Jennifer Lawrence.
Director of Photography: Hagen Bogdanski, Editor: Lynzee Klingman, Production Designer: Mark Friedberg, Original Music: Marcelo Zarvos
Rated: PG-13 for very serious themes meant to be important.

            In 2008, Kyle Killer’s script, The Beaver, landed in the #1 spot on the Black List, a list of the best unproduced scripts in Hollywood, as compiled by its top producers. No doubt there is a good story in The Beaver, one that could have made for a very funny movie with Steve Carrell at one time. But actress Jodie Foster, taking large leaps in her third time behind the camera, has cast the film in a very different light. Her tone is more serious; her attention to the troubling problems of mental illness that flourish the script’s narrative more prominent. Most of all though, is her choice of casting in Mel Gibson.

            Mr. Gibson has not been seen on screens since Edge of Darkness, a Boston revenge thriller that fits snuggly in the “Make-Mel-Made” genre that populated in career in the 1990s. Here, he’s playing Sad Mel. Very sad. His character, Walter, is a toy company CEO with a dying business and a family that hates him (Ms. Foster plays his wife, Anton Yelchin, his older son). After being kicked out of the house, Walter goes a motel where two unsuccessful suicide attempts plague him so much that a beaver hand puppet he finds takes on a personality of his own. Walter makes no attempts to hide the fact that it’s really his voice talking, but The Beaver charms with his happy-go-lucky mood and cockeyed accent. Could the beaver be the answer to all of Mel’s problems or is it simply hiding the dark surface?

               This question makes up the center of what Ms. Foster as a director is attempting to tackle, though in a blunt and often unfocused way. The Beaver’s premise is very absurd and has the chance to be wildly funny, despite the dark side, but Ms. Foster is only interested in the darkness. This is substantiated especially with Mr. Yelchin’s plot, which involves a romance with a manic pixie dream girl, unfortunately characterized by Winter’s Bone star Jennifer Lawrence. For a minute, Ms. Lawrence seems to be hardening her tough shell that led her to give one of the most astonishing performances of 2010. But her character here is too shallow, and the plot to telegraphed to register any sort of a note.

         And then there’s Mr. Gibson himself, the big white elephant that’s front and center in the narrative. Mr. Gibson actually works well in the tone of the film. He does seem to play through the range of emotions that exist in the narrative’s framework, and his stuff with the Beaver is quite charming and cute at times. But the problem is the meta-narrative that he brings to such a role. Ms. Foster knew the risk she was taking when she did it, but by keeping the tone so serious and so dry, she never involves us in the story as to be caught up in Walter’s breakdown when we only see Mel’s breakdown (a scene late in the film where he starts shouting as Ms. Foster hits a little too close to reality, even if those events took place after filming).

            I don’t blame Mr. Gibson, and he’s definitely the best thing about the film, as Ms. Foster does little with the camera, and even less with tone and pacing. As an actress, Ms. Foster has always played against type; less innocent than devilish in Taxi Driver, and na├»ve instead of confident in The Silence of the Lambs. But here the risk doesn’t work. It’s a backfire which becomes the film’s mortal sin: The Beaver is simply boring. It’s too cautious about mental illness to entertain, and not dark enough to really hit any notes of tragedy. It’s a fastball hit for an easy single, when a homer for the fences would have at least been fun to see.

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