Despite a ludicrous set-up based around one of the most outlandish performances of Mel Gibson's career, "The Beaver" is a tame, leisurely drama that neither provides the beleaguered actor with decisive comeback material nor further muddies his tarnished image. As directed by Jodie Foster from the screenplay by first-timer Kyle Killen, the story takes an irreverent plot and makes it uniformly familiar, if not entirely unpleasant. Gibson demonstrates a staunch commitment to his role as an emotionally damaged man driven to excise his troubles by speaking through the titular hand puppet, but the subdued tone brings him down to earth.
Donning a constant scowl, Gibson plays Walter Black, a supremely depressed man equally frustrated by his flailing marriage and his job as the CEO of the toy company he inherited from his father. A succession of early scenes track these developments before Walter says a single word, although the thick Australian voiceover narration laying out his life turns out to be his invented alter ego. The night his wife (Foster) kicks him out, Walter discovers the puppet in a dumpster and ends up passed out in a hotel room with the dirty discovery on his arm. The next morning, the beaver has a voice -- the aforementioned narrator -- and announces its therapeutic intentions. "Do you wanna get better?" Walter asks himself through his newfound creation. "I'm the beaver, and I'm out to save your goddamn life."
With that sort of dialogue, viewers may expect something strange or farcical to come next, but "The Beaver" attempts to stay within real world constraints, proceeding to explore the fallout of Walter's mania in straightforward fashion. The story extends to Black's estranged teenage son Porter (Anton Yelchin), a moody prodigy resigned to applying his smarts by doing other students' homework for a price. While Walter attempts to cure himself, Porter attempts to cure fellow classmate Norah (Jennifer Lawrence, also seen alongside Yelchin in the recent Sundance winner "Like Crazy"), the valedictorian who hires him to write her graduation speech but refuses to face the recent drug-related death of her brother.
These developments take place with understated, humorless conviction, placing emphasis on the introspective process of self-discovery in both strands of the plot. Rarely does any scene involve more than two or three characters engaged in grave conversations about their troubled lives, although the beaver's whimsical lines occasionally spice up the dialogue. Still, Killen's script (one of two playing at the South by Southwest Film Festival to have once been on the Hollywood Black List, along with "Source Code") practically begs for stage treatment, where the unseemly blend of familial reconciliation and mentally unstable behavior could find room to breathe.
Cinematically speaking, "The Beaver" is fundamentally simplistic; it only works because the cast deliver the goods in a few understated scenes. Whenever Killen's script aims higher -- such as the uneven hints of media satire when Black conducts interviews as the beaver with Matt Lauer and Jon Stewart -- its philosophical core starts to become thin. The strongest thread involves an ongoing contrast between Walter and Porter, whose finicky disposition provides the up-and-coming Yelchin with his most refined role yet.
With tightly controlled performances and uniquely eccentric events, "The Beaver" is mainly undone by the lack of a satisfying outcome. Foster's willingness to indulge the script's odd tonal shifts provide its most welcome conceit, and Gibson helps maintain them. His solo scenes are both absurd and darkly unsettling for several reasons, some of which depend on your tolerance for watching the notoriously bad-tempered actor, well, lose his temper: Whether awkwardly failing to hang himself in a bathtub or beating himself up with a guitar, Gibson demonstrates an expansive madness that suggests a much darker, more involving psychological transition. No matter how straight Foster makes the material, "The Beaver" only succeeds when it veers off the beaten path.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Given that the premise implies a broad comedy and Gibson's real-life persona has informed its reputation, "The Beaver" will have an uphill battle getting noticed, particularly since its unquestionably weird plot has already thrown people off. However, a mixture of morbid curiosity and mixed-positive reviews could translate into a solid, if not stunning, box office reception.
criticWIRE grade: B
This review was originally published during indieWIRE's coverage of SXSW '11. "The Beaver" hits theaters this Friday, May 6.