Too Hard On The Beaver?

I’ve always been a believer in separating life from art, and naturally, from film in particular. The movies of Leni Riefenstahl should be preserved, no one should be made to feel guilty about seeing a film from Victor Salva or Roman Polanski, and folks such as Charlie Sheen, Tom Sizemore, and even Lindsay Lohan, no matter how troubled they may be, deserve to have careers as long as they can keep it together for production. Therefore, in light of recent events surrounding the off-camera persona of one Mel Gibson, I was extremely interested in checking out his much-maligned new film, co-starring and directed by Jodie Foster, The Beaver. A total box office flop, taking in under a million bucks (even though its release was limited, which also could have had something to do with Gibson’s actions), The Beaver was considered a complete mess of a movie upon its unveiling. But, I couldn’t escape the feeling that much of the reason for this negative response was the result of ill-timed events that had nothing to do with the movie itself (despite its wacky premise) and people’s dismissal of Gibson. The actual reviews were widely mixed, with even those who had positive things to say refusing to give it full praise. So, with the film recently coming to DVD, I decided to take a look at it, to determine whether the panning of The Beaver is fully deserved.

Now, at first glance, it’s actually quite understandable why this film would be considered absolutely ridiculous and why it wouldn’t garner a ton of interest, regardless of how individuals feel about Gibson. A severely depressed man (Gibson) at the end of his rope learns to create a psychological and emotional distance, in order to effectively communicate with his family and co-workers, through the use of a tattered hand puppet (hence, the title character)… yeah, exactly. A simple viewing of the film’s trailer could elicit guffaws of riotous laughter, and not in a good way, as The Beaver IS NOT a comedy. The release is unconventional and certainly not for everyone. I will, at the very least, give credit to the cast and crew, especially Gibson and Foster, for making the bold choice to undertake such an effort. Foster does the best she can with what she has, both as a director and co-starring as Mel’s wife, and Gibson throws all of himself into the performance, which is admirable. After all, even though Gibson’s public image has perhaps deservedly suffered, it can’t be denied that he still has talent.

However, the ultimate and obvious question is: Is The Beaver a good movie? Well, my honest answer is… not really… BUT, it was a really valiant effort, and the production isn’t quite as bad as many would make it out to be. While actually getting into the film, the bizarre plot began to seem feasible to me. Gibson’s character is a man without any hope left. It’s important to know that he’s clinically depressed, not just down in the dumps, so he’s tried the therapy and he’s tried the pills. He’s estranged from his wife and two sons and is on the brink of suicide. “The beaver” puppet is Gibson’s last-ditch effort to survive and make a fresh start. He begins to use it to talk (creating a character with an “English” accent) and finds that its implementation allows him to create enough of a barrier between himself and those around him so that he can start to properly manage his feelings. Gibson makes strides in saving his toy company from certain bankruptcy and rebuilding his relationship with his family through this unorthodox technique. Though, his oldest teenage son (Anton Yelchin) with emotional troubles of his own isn’t having any of it. It’s all rather improbable, but I suppose not impossible. The real problem with the movie lies in the script and the editing. I can tell that the effort was hacked to bits in post-production since there’s plenty of material in the trailer that was never present in the final cut. This was probably done to streamline it a little bit, but it was ultimately to its detriment. Some of the scenarios involving Gibson’s mental disease really needed more inspection, and I would also love to see the original screenplay to see whether some scenes and characters were fleshed out a little better.

Just when I was starting to buy into what was going on and care about the family, the movie turned on itself and went in a direction that I not only didn’t see coming, but thought was completely absurd. While I understood the motivation behind this out-of-leftfield bombshell, it ultimately didn’t serve the narrative very well, especially considering the pacing of the film, and wound up killing the momentum that the characters had built up to that point. Furthermore, at about the eighty minute mark of The Beaver’s ninety-minute running time, the movie ties itself up in a nice neat little bow, much like an episode of, dare I say it, Leave It To Beaver. This ends up totally trivializing mental illness (Though, this definitely isn’t the first film to be guilty of that. Incidentally, for a recent example of a production that handles the subject rather well, check out It’s Kind Of A Funny Story). Sure, The Beaver’s ultimate message is a positive one, but it almost makes it seem that depression is a simple problem that one can fix with the snap of their fingers, which I doubt is what the film was going for. Additionally, Yelchin’s character does an extreme 180 degree turn seemingly without much onscreen provocation or convincing self-revelation, and many issues remain unresolved, leaving viewers holding the bag.

In the end, I can’t say I’d recommend The Beaver to anyone. However, for more adventurous viewers out there, it may be worth a look. It does have some merit, and although the movie is quite flawed, it doesn’t have anything to do with the performances, which were actually all good (including the young Jennifer Lawrence from last year’s Winter’s Bone, btw, who I wish was featured more as Yelchin’s love interest). This is especially true when it comes to Gibson, who was not only solid, but whose presence didn’t bother or distract me at all. Therefore, I stand by my initial point that a film should be judged on its own merit and not the outside influences of the various participants’ personal lives. For example, forget about Mel for a minute. I can honestly say I haven’t enjoyed a Jodie Foster movie in quite some time and find her to be a bit overrated. I never even bothered with Flightplan or The Brave One, because they both looked awful to me, and I hated films such as Panic Room and Contact. But, that didn’t stop me from going into The Beaver with an open mind, because it piqued my interest. It ultimately didn’t work out in this case. That’s just how things go sometimes, but once in a while I’m surprised by how much I like a movie that has a negative stigma attached to it (like Woody Allen’s Husbands And Wives, for example) that I would have never known about had I let my prejudices get in the way. So, in closing, try to leave the personal judgments at the door and watch Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer if it’s interesting, view as many Elia Kazan films as you want, and feel free, if you’re so inclined, to see The Beaver even though Mel Gibson is in it. Or don’t. Either way, it’s most likely no skin off The Beaver.