It’s like he died but he didn’t have the good sense to take his body with him.
There’s depression like finding out the train’s going to be late or that girl just totally rejected you or someone has died. Then there’s thinking you’re dumb, useless, friendless, or (probably and) nothing of any value. Such is the ambiguity of the English language that one word accounts for things only remotely connected. Depression is the object of some pretty strong campaigns to change public perception from seeing it as a broken mind to something different–less stigma, less judgment, less fear. Sounds good to me. And for valiance, The Beaver (2011), get’s an A–or is it a V? But, like with effort, I think we all understand what the conditional implies.
Walter (Mel Gibson) is depressed. His wife, Meredith (Jodie Foster), has him leave the house. Porter (Anton Yelchin) wants to erase every similarities he has with him. Then he finds a puppet beaver in a dumpster. It takes the wheel as “The Beaver” to steer Walter clear of self-harm and towards things a bit more positive. Life at home improves. Life at work improves. His son still hates him, but when you don’t like dad, finding him back at home talking through a stuffed animal probably isn’t a rhetorical coup. Things get worse, then they get better. Oh, and Porter has this thing going with Norah (Jennifer Lawrence).
From here on out, most of the talk is going to be negative, but I don’t want to give the impression that it isn’t worth seeing. It is worth seeing. But, like Walter, it’s got some serious problems–or wait, can I say that?
Problem #1: The object.
This movie is called “The Beaver.” Said beaver is like a split personality for Walter to give him the kind of detachment from reality he needs to function–if this is considered functioning. Walter talks to the beaver and it talks to him. So why, oh why, do we constantly see Mel Gibson talking as the beaver? I don’t think anybody is going to be confused and think the beaver is self-animated–Foster, who directs, makes sure of that.
But isn’t that how we get into Walter’s mind? How we see things from his point of view? Why yes, it is. And sometimes, the beaver is the only character in the shot, but usually alone in the frame, like an anime introduction–sparkle, wow, “The Beaver”. Some of the blame probably goes to the designer of the beaver itself, such that it doesn’t look natural alone, but that’s only half the problem.
Problem #2: Mel Gibson is no puppeteer.
Maybe this is the real problem with shooting the Beaver–Gibson just can’t do it justice . The Beaver has no life of its own. Example: Walter finds a hole in the wall and he turns to look at it, but the beaver doesn’t follow suit. I’m inclined to think that both these things were conscious decisions for two reasons. First, Mel Gibson, whatever his mental state, is an excellent actor brilliant in the art of physicality particularly with his face–don’t tell me he can’t animate a puppet. Second, everything about this movie screams “STATEMENT.” Good or bad as a thing in itself, it does not lend itself to a good movie.
Had problems 1 and 2 not occurred, you would have had stronger (or existent) comedy and a more energetic experience. But, again, I think this movie is about someone who has a problem that is entirely within the realm of possibility and we have to discuss this very frankly, like grown-ups. It’s either that or a serious misstep by the makers, whichever you prefer.
Problem 3: The subject.
As I alluded, there’s a significant subplot here with Porter, the son, and his interaction with Norah the valedictorian, cheerleader hottie. Porter has been writing papers for people for money, and he’s really good at adopting another’s voice. Norah, having some blockage in writing her V speech enlists Porter. Norah’s got some Ordinary People (1980) style problems and isn’t really dealing with them, which as the pop-psychologists we all are, we know to be an error or unhealthy–physician, shut your face. Porter also has got some major irregularities going on with his behavior as well.
This story becomes a stronger one than Walter’s. Probably because we have a clear personality that is animated in a way we recognize. Also, Norah’s a hottie and I am well trained in wanting nerds to hook up with hotties. I Love You, Beth Cooper (2009), oh I do, I do, it’s true. It also gets roughly equal billing with Walter’s story.
The moral of the story about Solomon and the baby is that half a baby isn’t really a baby at all.
Problem 4: Performance.
Gibson probably had some serious pressure to perform in this movie at Signs (2002)-like quality. He doesn’t really get to do that because he spends so much time up a beaver’s end. Again, I seriously suspect some reigning in of actual ability.
Foster, who I typically admire, seems to have been reading from the script of The Beaver, but mistakenly believing she was the character from Flightplan (2005) or was it Panic Room (2002). And, while I liked those movies, her distress was a little too constant. Maybe if she played it a little restrained so that these emotions would bound out.
Yelchin I don’t typically admire. In fact, I don’t quite understand the appeal–much like I don’t understand the appeal of Jesse Eisenberg. Angsty teen is something that almost all of us know too well. Porter is toying with damage that goes beyond this and for that I feel for him, but angst remains.
Lawrence, as I said, also has a much larger role than I imagined. Though she’s on the cover so I shouldn’t have been surprised. Still, I fear for The Hunger Games (2012). Maybe I shouldn’t. Maybe the cool, understated, almost numb performance will suit the role to a K. Still, that Beiber lite (Josh Hutcherson) has me worried even more. Dread.
On the whole, there’s something missing–a phenomenon they mention a great deal in the movie–this something is cinema. It’s just not cinematic. It’s like an educational movie you show in school to “understand depression.” But does it succeed at that? Walter doesn’t have a revelation or breakthrough or anything. He has a problem that nothing has fixed–got it, great, not every problem has a clear solution, I’m with you. By the end [spoiler] [spoiler] [spoiler], but why?
Am I educated after this movie or do I just know that depression exists? What the movie doesn’t tell me is what must be its primary or even sole aim–how do I frame my enlightened thoughts on depression? The film provides no answer.