With Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, Anton Yelchin and Jennifer Lawrence; Directed by Jodie Foster; Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material, some disturbing images, sexuality and language including a drug reference; 91 minutes
Mel Gibson could fricassee a puppy at a children’s birthday party on live TV, and we would still collectively forgive him, just so long as he kept turning out sympathetic portraits like Walter Black in his latest starring role, in Jodie Foster’s seriocomic mixed-bag, THE BEAVER.
Walter is a toy company exec whose late father’s empire is on-the-skids. Psychotherapy, countless medications and sleeping for most of the day do not help his crippling depression. His wife, Meredith (Foster) has, for the sake of the family, asked Walter to move out, and his teenage son, Porter (Anton Yelchin) is actively tallying Walter’s flaws so that he can avoid becoming anything like him. Enter ‘The Beaver,’ a puppet through which Walter channels a lost part of his personality (in a tough-guy London brogue that Foster calls “Michael Caine on speed”), and things get interesting for the Black family. Though not as much as they might have for us.
While Gibson – in full-tilt Martin Riggs (from “Lethal Weapon”) crazy-pants mode here – makes the part look easy (and ultimately treats mental illness with the seriousness it deserves), the film cannot quite contain him. The too-brief, 91-minute running time coupled with the noticeably plentiful cuts-to-black suggest there might have been a much meatier movie here, presumably scrambled and shortened by the last-minute re-shoots and re-edits. (Gibson’s very public girl troubles and subsequent fiery caught-on-tape meltdown prompted distributor Summit Entertainment to move the film off its intended, Oscar-courting Fall ’10 berth.)
The story is solid enough, with all of its subplots wrapping up tidily – if only a bit too quickly – and is buoyed by an exceptional cast. Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar-nominated for “Winter’s Bone,” plays Porter’s guilt-wracked crush with insight and emotional intelligence. Yelchin is prodigiously and eerily good, like a Russian-born Fanning or Culkin, though he has been so in nearly everything since throwing-down brilliantly with actors like Hank Azaria, Oliver Platt and Blythe Danner in Showtime’s gone-too-soon series from 2004, “Huff.” Two-time Oscar winner Foster, in her third at-bat at the helm, is a little rusty. The 16-year lag since directing “Home For The Holidays” called for a home run this time up, rather than the sacrifice fly that is “The Beaver.”
With a quiet, limited release apparently timed to be swallowed up by the flood of Big Summer Releases, “The Beaver,” with all of its sincere gimmickry and made-for-TV sensibilities, will likely find its audience on DVD and TV later this year. Despite his woeful suggestions that he may quit the business, Mel Gibson will live to act another day (his “How I Spent My Summer Vacation” is opening on Thanksgiving), so mind your kids and puppies.•••