It should come as no surprise that Mel Gibson has issues.
Last summer’s tabloid voicemail debacle portrayed the actor as a drunken, racist maniac, and made Gibson psychoanalyses a national pastime. In fact, it’s presumably only due to the sudden, annoying ubiquity of the even more crass and crazy Charlie Sheen that we’re finally witnessing the long-delayed release of Jodie Foster’s third directorial effort, The Beaver. A long-delayed, low-budget labor of love for the actress, the film grapples sincerely with mental illness within a patently absurd context. It doesn’t quite work, but it provides something of a cinematic exorcism for the public’s increasingly conflicted relationship with Gibson. It also gives a platform for one of his most indelible performances.
Gibson stars as Walter Black, a clinically depressed basket case who drifts through the film’s early segments in a sad-eyed haze, barely registering when he’s kicked out by his long-suffering wife (Foster) and shunned by his two sons (Anton Yelchin and Riley Thomas Stewart.)
After a comically disastrous suicide attempt, Walter discovers a beat-up beaver puppet in the garbage. Wearing it on his hand, he spontaneously concocts a radical form of therapy in which he’ll only communicate through the beaver. It’s a depressive’s dream, the chance to start everything all over again with a new, unaccountable identity. The beaver is brash, charming and likable—everything that Walter Black is not.
Running a scant 88 minutes and over-reliant on montages and a syrupy score, the movie is hesitant to let scenes play out in their entirety. It feels heavily edited and fussed over.
A shame, because Foster comes to a gutsy conclusion. What’s impressively tough-minded about The Beaver is its ardent insistence that there are no quick fixes and easy outs. Summed up rather inelegantly in a lecture to the camera by Jennifer Lawrence’s secretly grieving cheerleader: Sometimes things just aren’t going to be OK. Sometimes people you love get sick, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Sometimes they die. The only way to move forward is learning how to live with that.
This should be common sense, but it’s positively startling to hear from a Hollywood movie. Such good intentions, plus a stunning Gibson performance, go a long way toward damming up The Beaver’s obvious flaws.
Her third directorial effort, Jodie Foster calls this long-gestating dream project the biggest challenge of her professional career. And all that was before her star Mel Gibson flamed out in an ugly, tabloid frenzy shortly after this long-delayed picture was finally finished.