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The Beaver Begs Comparisons Between Character and Star

Some actors hit a point in their careers where they became polarizing personas, not for the daring roles they took onscreen, but for their lifestyle choices offscreen. This past decade there have been many poster children for these turns. Mission: Impossible success be damned, Tom Cruise’s couch-jumping and brow-beating Scientology advocacy is divisive. Until rising back to prominence and bagging that Oscar, Joaquin Phoenix’s fake retirement and terrible interviews put him in this conversation for years. Then you have the actors who have long had the “quirky” tag, like Sean Penn, Jeff Goldblum, Jim Carrey, Steve Buscemi, Crispin Glover, Gary Oldman, Christopher Walken, and even Marvel Comics Universe stud Robert Downey, Jr. Is the quirky label fair, or are they daring? Are they eccentric or calculated? Are they crazy, or are they actually brilliant?

Walter lays on his back on the floor looking at his puppet.

Well, Mel Gibson might be the unofficial president of the Polarizing Club. He’s got Tom Cruise beat when you count up all the drunken, racist, mega-Catholic, anti-gay, anti-Semitic, misogynist, and abusive things that have come out of his mouth and seen in his actions for decades. The list is long, and he has most certainly alienated a great many people over the years while transitioning from a full-time actor to an equally controversial filmmaker (The Passion of the Christ, Apocalypto, Hacksaw Ridge). His return to the Oscar spotlight with Hacksaw Ridge was not without a cringe factor.

The question of us, the audience, becomes: Can you separate the man from the movie? There are many people out there who won’t watch a Tom Cruise, Mel Gibson, or Sean Penn film on principle for who they are or what they stand for, not because of the movie. That very likely happened with 2011’s The Beaver, a nearly forgotten directorial effort by his good friend and fellow multiple Academy Award winner Jodie Foster. It is available to stream via Hoopla Digital, Vudu, Tubi, and Pluto.

Are you willing to watch a good actor at work, or is the mugshot all you see and the infamous voicemails and sound bites all you hear? Your perspective on that essential question will (unfortunately) factor into how well you like or dislike The Beaver. Those who will dismiss The Beaver because of Mel’s reputation will miss out on his best performance in years, as well as outstanding work behind and in front of the camera by Foster.

This writer is one of those people who can separate the man from the actor and take movies and performances for what they are worth. From that angle, The Beaver stands as a fascinating character piece on depression, family relations, and masking one’s inner feelings. The wildest part of all becomes the possibilities one can spin between the mental health of the film’s character and the actor playing him.

In The Beaver, we meet Walter Black (Gibson), the CEO of a downtrodden toy company. For years, he’s been lost in deep depression, its causes unknown, and is a shell of the father, husband, and businessman he used to be. Walter’s two sons, a toddler too young to know and a teenager, Porter (the late Anton Yelchin) too old to forget, don’t know him anymore. His wife, Meredith (Foster), has lost him as well and has tried every remedy of supportive therapy to stand by her man. She decides that it’s time for Walter to move out.

Walter stares at a puppet he found in the trash.

In a drunken hotel bender, Walter tries unsuccessfully to kill himself but instead hears a voice and finds a beaver puppet in the dumpster. That voice is his own, but in a low half-Cockney/half-Australian accent, and it’s spoken through the puppet. The outlet of the puppet, representing Walter’s inner voice now on the outside, it seems, starts to usher in the motivation and change Walter needs in his life. He reignites passion with his wife, inspires a hit new product at work, and reconnects with his youngest son.

This is about the difference between one’s inner thoughts and feelings and the separate, outer expression to communicate with others. In our lives, we are equally relieved at times and burdened at other times by the feelings we “got off our chest.” By seeing him talking through a puppet, we are left to debate who’s representing the real Walter, the Beaver, or Walter himself. Which voice or point-of-view is his true personality coming through, and which one is the act?

The biggest conciliatory challenge is Porter. He doesn’t buy this new Walter one bit and lobbies Meredith to divorce Walter. Porter, a cynical high school senior and loner who documents the troubling similarities between himself and his father, uses his smarts to illegally ghostwrite his classmates’ papers for tidy profits. His newest customer is the seemingly perfect Norah (a pre-superstardom Jennifer Lawrence), the class valedictorian, who pays him to write her upcoming graduation address and takes a liking to him.

Norah and Porter talk on a sidewalk outside of school

The Beaver is not your typical family-on-the-edge-of-divorce drama. The arguments, reasons, and roots of how the Black family got to this point over the years are smoothly left out, creating a chance for the audience to imagine them on their own and focus on the present. Depression is center stage for sure, and Walter is the one to blame, but in a way, we’re not given enough history to see where Walter came from or where Porter lost touch.

Contrary to fellow Polarizing Club member Tom Cruise’s dated assertions that chemical imbalance, like depression, doesn’t exist, we all know depression does exist and that it’s a commonly occurring problem that affects many types of people in very different ways. No case is alike, and there are many possible outlets. For some, medication and counseling do the trick to repair what’s needed, while for others, more extreme and personal outlets manifest. Whether it’s artistic expression (Norah), self-inflicted physical harm (Porter), or a raggedy puppet you make talk (Walter), an outlet is better than not dealing with the problem at all.

Depression can seep into a family’s lives like ice cracking a rock. Marriage, stresses, and complacency, among other causes, can slowly build over time and change people for the worse by manifesting in depression. Though we don’t see the Blacks’ history, we do see the affected present caused by Walter’s longstanding distance.  Depression can erode a marriage, a family, and a job. That’s why therapeutic outlets are necessary and more helpful than denying the problem.

The key factor that either sells The Beaver for you or loses you in ventriloquist-induced eye-rolling is Gibson’s performance. People often forget that Mel Gibson is a hell of an actor and can play internal conflict (maybe from personal experience) like few others around. At the time, The Beaver was just his second starring role in the nine years since his box-office peak in 2002’s Signs. He brings a palpable dramatic edge to the part of Walter. His measured firmness is something that would have been soiled by bad physical comedy that would have come from previously attached stars Steve Carell and Jim Carrey.

With this very unique example of mental illness, Mel becomes as serious and tortured as the depression itself, and it’s some of the best work of his career. Once again, that is contingent on whether or not you can separate the actor from the man. There will be a big group of viewers that, no matter how impressive the performance, just won’t buy an actor speaking through a puppet or a story that asks people to accept that as an outlet for depression, let alone that it’s Mel Gibson.

Jodie Foster is joined by her cast and crew looking over dailies.

Gibson is well supported by stellar work from Jodie Foster. At the time, this was her first directorial effort in 16 years (she has directed Money Monster since). She has a keen creative eye for domestic settings, just as she did in her other family-based features, Home for the Holidays and Little Man Tate. Onscreen, she’s still the best actress of her generation, and it’s her strength as Meredith that adults will most identify with. Like most good actresses over 40 or 50 (Foster was 48 in 2011), she is one of those talents who doesn’t get enough good roles anymore. Instead, she makes a great one for herself here.

The subplot in The Beaver that arguably steals the show, if that’s possible with Mel’s attention-getting performance, is the Porter-Norah friendship/romance of Anton Yelchin and Jennifer Lawrence. Foster and the screenplay wisely spend time developing Porter’s arc of either accepting the father he misses or conquering the internal quest to not end up just like him. He becomes the point of view and emotional center of the movie, to much surprise, and brings Norah’s own issues in for good measure. Still, just like Porter himself, if you can’t handle depression or allow a man to talk to you through a puppet, then you too will tune Walter and The Beaver out.

Written by Don Shanahan

DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic writing here on Film Obsessive as the Editor-in-Chief and Content Supervisor for the film department. He also writes for his own website, Every Movie Has a Lesson. Don is one of the hosts of the Cinephile Hissy Fit Podcast on the Ruminations Radio Network and sponsored by Film Obsessive. As a school teacher by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Indie Critics and a voting member of the nationally-recognized Critics Choice Association, Online Film Critics Society, North American Film Critics Association, International Film Society Critics Association, Internet Film Critics Society, Online Film and TV Association, and the Celebrity Movie Awards.

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