Jodie Foster's new film, The Beaver, was supposed to be the first step in Mel Gibson's "comeback," but in terms of character it's actually a throwback to the slapstick roles he's played in the past. His protagonist Walter Black is a troubled man with a unique predicament that lends itself to plenty of meditative moments, but he portrays the sad sack in a darkly comic manner (much like his devil-may-care L.A. cop Martin Riggs, whose arrogance and cavalier attitude was as outrageous a coping mechanism as the titular animal in this film). Foster almost brings it home with steady direction and a playful tone that accentuates Gibson's batty performance, but one plot point throws the poignancy of the story down the toilet.
Centering on the Black family comprised of mother Meredith (Foster) and sons Porter (Anton Yelchin) and Henry, the film follows patriarch Walter, who nearly runs his father's toy company into the ground prior to the film's opening. Through voice-over narration we're told that Walter has been suffering from depression, which led to alcoholism, for sometime and it's destroyed his relationship with his family along the way. Just when all hope seems lost he finds a raggedy beaver puppet in the trash, which not so magically springs to life and helps put Walter back on the right track.
To be fair to screenwriter Kyle Killen and co-star Yelchin, The Beaver actually boasts a dual narrative: two related stories running parallel to one another that converge at the film's climax. In addition to Walter's rehabilitation, we also follow Porter as he comes of age and gets "the girl" (Jennifer Lawrence), though this half of the film is wholly unnecessary and distracting. Compared to Walter's gripping existential and psychological crises, and despite another solid turn from Yelchin who continues to prove how gifted an actor he is with an effortlessly sincere performance, this thread is plainly predictable and takes the narrative far off course. The other nail in its coffin is Lawrence's bland portrayal of an emotionally scarred every girl, though I believe her failure is actually Killen's fault. He obviously spent much less time designing her character and more trying to figure out how to tie the hasty romance to the film's larger themes of identity and second chances.
Still, this is an actor's movie and though there isn't an Academy Award worthy performance to be found in it, Gibson's portrayal of a lost soul on the road to redemption is genuinely heartrending. He is, perhaps, the perfect actor for the part as recent events in his own life are loosely comparable to the characters own. I definitely got the feeling that he was exorcising his own demons through the wild Walter, but he's smart enough to allow us to have some fun with him by delivering healthy doses of physical comedy and frenzied facial expressions. His turn is as evenly balanced as the film itself, which plays on both sides of the dramedic fence.
My biggest problems with The Beaver point to Foster the actress and Foster the director, as well as Killen's third act atom bomb. When we first meet Meredith, she's pleased to have finally gotten Walter out of the house, but as soon as he shows up claiming to be recovering thanks to the beaver she lets him back in, no questions asked. Then we jump into an awfully clichéd montage showing how fast Walter (and his marriage) is recuperating. This detracts from the strength of Foster's should-be independent woman and reveals the major weakness in her direction: pacing. The story just moves along a bit too quickly, never allowing the gravity of Walter's mistakes to sink in. And don't get me started on the schlocky climax that literally turns this mostly lighthearted tale into a horror story. That was the point of no return for me.
What could've been a refreshing family drama is rendered mediocre as a result of a few narrative missteps, but don't let that stop the film from jogging your memory of Mel the actor, who shines brighter here than he has in a decade.
Hollywood.com rated this film 2 1/2 stars.