Title: The Beaver

Director: Jodie Foster

Starring: Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, Anton Yelchin, Jennifer Lawrence, Cherry Jones, Riley Thomas Stewart, Zachary Booth

Off-screen, Mel Gibson may or may not be a deplorable human being — and I tend to think on a certain level he kind of is, with the caveat that I additionally understand he’s also very much a guy in deep, deep pain — but the fact remains that he and his new movie, “The Beaver”, are uniquely suited for one another. When Gibson, after a string of disastrous incidents in his personal life, mounted a comeback with last year’s “Edge of Darkness”, his first starring role in almost eight years, box office reception was notably muted ($43 million domestically, and only a grand worldwide total of $81 million), even though it was a revenge tale right in his crazy-eyed commercial wheelhouse. Later, he got very publicly booted from a cameo in “The Hangover Part II”. His bashing of women (both metaphorical and literal), and slurring of Jews, African-Americans and other minority groups seemed to have reached a boiling-over point; Gibson was toxic, “persona non grata” in Hollywood, at least on screen. Until an old friend came calling.

A hot spec script commodity some years back, praised in various outlets as one of Hollywood’s top unproduced screenplays, Austinite Kyle Killen’s debut effort at one point had Steve Carell attached for its lead role, of a seriously depressed toy company executive who, after a failed suicide attempt, takes to communicating with his family and coworkers solely via a beaver hand puppet. When Jodie Foster took over as director, however, she tabbed former “Maverick” costar Gibson as her leading man. So when even more… well, stuff from Gibon’s personal life hit the fan last fall, it briefly seemed “The Beaver” might conceivably be consigned to a straight-to-video release — which would be a shame, actually, since this is an intriguing and thought-provoking movie that deserves a wider audience.

Walter Black (Gibson) has for years suffered from extreme depression and possibly mental illness, and endured all sorts of treatments, to little positive effect. He’s mentally checked out of his marriage and family, and is at the end of his rope. When he comes to after another night of drunken anguish and hopelessness, Walter is confronted by the tough-love advice of the titular puppet (“You’re sick, on that much we agree — the question is, Do you want to get better?”), which he also voices, in a thick Scottish brogue. Slipping the Beaver onto his hand, Walter, having recently been kicked out of his house, returns to home and work, where his wife Meredith (Foster) and long-suffering second-in-command (Cherry Jones) try to adjust to his new, eccentric interaction.

Everyone at first thinks it’s some sort of stunt or joke, of course, but Walter hands them a card advising that he is under the care of a licensed psychiatric professional, and they should conversationally address the Beaver. Slight upticks in sociability and functionality are soon registered, and the declining fortunes of Walter’s toy company are reversed by a new line of “Mr. Beaver Woodchopper Kits.” Even as Walter establishes a rapport with his younger son Henry (Riley Thomas Stewart) through the puppet, though, his teenage son Porter (Anton Yelchin) — a smart but angry kid who keeps a list of Post-Its enumerating all the traits of his father of which he wishes to rid himself, and finds himself hired by valedictorian Norah (Jennifer Lawrence) to pen her forthcoming graduation commencement speech — remains aloof. Over time, too, the Beaver morphs into a less benign, more manipulative alter ego, impinging on Walter’s free will and already tenuous grasp on reality, and threatening to erase whatever newfound gains he’s made.

It’s difficult to think of a recent film that has the same sort of sociocultural import as “The Beaver”. Media cameos from figures like Matt Lauer and Jon Stewart help give the movie some scope and real-world mooring as Walter becomes an oddball media celebrity, and the outlandish meltdowns and wacky public behavior of Charlie Sheen doubtlessly also give “The Beaver” an element of popular currency. (“People love a trainwreck when it’s not them,” says one character.) Mainly, though, it’s Gibson’s aforementioned, publicly aired private failings that create this weird, super-channeled energy, and a sense that, watching him as Walter, you’re getting as close and as honest a look at some of the dark and desperate feelings of Gibson, the man, as you’re ever going to get. It’s a gutsy, captivating, highwire performance.

Tonally, “The Beaver” is an odd mixture of genres — it’s part dark comedy, part family drama and part social satire. Some of these strands are better developed than others, while others suffer from comparative neglect, or oversimplification. But the movie, in sum, works because it doesn’t short-change or soft-peddle its despair, and pivot into unearned sunny montages of a dancing and laughing reconciled family. It’s honest about depression, and mental illness. Its relatively dark ending, lined with a bit of bruised grace, feels appropriate, and oddly realistic, lending the film a sense of settledness.

Technical: B

Acting: A-

Story: A-

Overall: B+

Written by: Brent Simon

The Beaver
The Beaver

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By Brent Simon

A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Brent Simon is a three-term president of LAFCA, a contributor to Screen International, Newsweek Japan, Magill's Cinema Annual, and many other outlets. He cannot abide a world without U2 and tacos.

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