'The Beaver': Working On Issues, With A Furry Friend

May 5, 2011

In The Beaver, a stately family drama with a black comedy struggling to break free from within, Mel Gibson deploys a seemingly magical hand puppet — plus more charm than he's allowed out in public in years.

Gibson plays Walter Black, a toy-company executive (hold that thought) whose professional and family life have gone exponentially south as his long-festering depression hits rock bottom.

Filled with booze and suicidal ideation, Walter rescues a slightly sinister-looking beaver puppet from a dumpster, and before you can say therapeutic transference, the puppet — voiced by Gibson in an impressive Cockney, circa early Michael Caine — gets busy galvanizing Walter out of his funk.

Soon the pair are inseparable, with the beaver orchestrating Walter's public and private rehabilitation, quite literally at arm's length. Business booms; domestic life recharges on all cylinders, including the post-coital wow. Only Walter's sullen teenaged son (Anton Yelchin) remains unpersuaded by his father's regained pizzazz.

Yelchin's Porter is determined to annihilate any unhelpful traits he might have inherited from Dad, but try as he might, he's as glum as Walter ever was — this despite the attentions of a troubled yet gutsy valedictorian played by Jennifer Lawrence, whose sweet face and shapely form are bracingly belied by a raspy alto bark and a steely resolve that may remind you a bit of the young Jodie Foster.

And aptly so: Foster directs the movie and plays Walter's hitherto forgiving wife, Meredith, who finally puts her foot down and tells Walter it's time to drop the crutch-toy and grow up. Needless to say, the Buck-Toothed One is not amused, and here the movie takes a sudden swerve to the dark side in ways I can't divulge without bringing on packs of baying spoiler-alert hounds.

Suffice it to say that Walter's bossy mentor — a big hit with Matt Lauer, Jon Stewart and NPR's own Terry Gross, all doing adorably hammy versions or themselves — can morph on a dime into Muammar Gaddafi.

This ought to be a lot more unnerving than it is. Foster makes as plain and professional a director as she is an actor; her sense of pacing can be downright leaden. Yet she knows when to lay off and let Gibson set the tone, and she gives her old buddy — whom she's staunchly defended throughout the real-life travails he's brought on himself — free rein to play off the two personas that have brought him fame and notoriety.

Those who love the rumpled charisma and self-deprecating ease with which Gibson pepped up even slight romantic comedies like What Women Want (2000) will be charmed by the The Beaver's first act. Those who groove to the punitive self-mutilation fantasies that have pumped up his self-directed work (from Braveheart through The Passion of the Christ to Apocalypto) will not be disappointed by the visceral ordeal that lays Walter low, then resurrects him.

Screenwriter Kyle Killan wrote the capable script for The Beaver while his wife was pregnant with twins, and he clearly had more than one kind of splitting on his mind. Walter Black may be at war with himself, but The Beaver is at its core a classically Oedipal tale. While one son angles in all the wrong ways for his abject father's attention, another engages in a heroic struggle with his abusive bully of a dad.

Gibson sounds too few notes for true versatility, but as a man and an actor, he surely qualifies as one of the most rivetingly schizoid figures in American cinema today. Watching Walter switch from destroyer to destroyed and back again is a pathologically authentic experience.

Being the creature that it is, of course, The Beaver has no choice but to mellow him out and integrate his warring parts. I didn't buy it for a second. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.