“The Beaver” is perhaps Jodie Foster’s most challenging film yet as a director (following 1991’s “Little Man Tate” and 1995’s “Home for the Holidays”). It’s an odd though daring drama laced with dark humor that mostly works, thanks to compelling performances and an ambitious script.
Granted, it’s sometimes tough to separate tabloid-making Mel Gibson from the character we see onscreen, but it helps that he’s not the sole focus in what’s really a dysfunctional family tale.
Gibson plays Walter Black, a business executive and husband who is thoroughly down in the dumps (we’re not really offered any real reason why, other than a hint that there may have been a history of mental disorders in his family line).
Things get so bad that Walter’s ever-loving wife, Meredith (Foster) finally kicks him out.
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Walter naturally has a breakdown, drinking himself to oblivion in a hotel room (remember, separate real life here). All is hopeless.
Until he finds a discarded beaver hand-puppet in a dumpster. And for some reason, he’s drawn to it and throws it in his trunk.
When he wakes up hungover the next day, Walter is wearing the puppet on his hand and it is talking to him. And then it takes over talking for him to other people . And then that’s the only way Walter can communicate.
Were that the sole premise of the movie, things would have gotten tiresome.
But the film is really about how Walter’s behavior affects his family. A major subplot following his son, Porter (a stellar Anton Yelchin, who played Chekov in the “Star Trek” reboot) actually is the most involving here, and provides the real heart of the film.
Porter is understandably mad at his father with abandonment issues, even if Walter had been living under the same roof. So Porter is given to fits of rage that he takes out on himself.
As a distraction, Porter has a lucrative business forging homework assignments for his high school peers, until he’s hired by the school’s hot cheerleader, Norah (Jennifer Lawrence, an Oscar nominee for last year’s “Winter’s Bone”). Soon, they start flirting, then love begins to blossom until they both get swept up in their respective family dramas.
Gibson turns in one of the most colorful, complex performances of his career, wholly committed to the film’s absurd premise. But he also shadows it with despair. Walter is indeed a very disturbed man, sadly so.
Foster’s role, though, is surprisingly underwritten. We’re never offered any real reason why she has stuck by Walter’s side through such turmoil, and now under such outlandish circumstances. We should feel her desperation to grasp control or understanding, but she seems merely perturbed by it all.
The script by Kyle Killen is still impressively creative. But it’s a lot to ask to buy into the premise. Much like “Lars and the Real Girl,” about a man who falls in love with a blow-up doll, we’re asked to go to extreme lengths with the protagonist. “The Beaver” teeters dangerously close to ludicrous waters.
Foster mostly keeps things believable, even though she missteps in a scene that has Walter fighting with the beaver puppet — it’s unintentionally funny.
Still, it’s all an interesting experiment, and a welcome dose of originality. “The Beaver” may be uneven, but — amazingly — Foster has crafted something special: an often moving, eventually life-affirming fairy tale.