Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Beaver

Whatever your opinions are about fellow actor and director Mel Gibson, it's difficult to deny that inside that very disturbed and perhaps disfinctional brain of his, there is a portion of it that is actually quite talented. Maybe even, dare I say, quite brilliant. His directing abilities demonstrate this, because Apocalypto is a serious (and gorgeous) feat to behold. His acting performances are almost always rather powerful, although they certainly have their ups and downs. I will, until my last dying breath, defend the awesomeness of Payback. It is a constantly overlooked modern take on the film noir genre, and Gibson is top-notch. Call it a guilty pleasure, Rotten Tomatoes be damned. Despite this, his "retribution" has still yet to make an appearance. At least, in the eyes of the public. However, there is little doubt that his performance in Jodie Foster's The Beaver sought to change that.
Like most people, it was much to my surprise that veteran actress Jodie Foster directed the film. I was even more surprised to learn that this was't her first time sitting in the captain's seat, helming relatively unknown films Little Man Tate in 1991 and Home for the Holidays in 1995. Judging from the trailer of the former, her abilities behind the camera seem to be...subpar. Fortunately, it appears that her directorial skills have tightened nicely, as The Beaver is definitely a film that is worth discussing, Gibson's personal life aside. 
Walter Black is an executive of a declining children's toy company, and is depressed. Really, really depressed, because he totally doesn't talk to his wife and kids anymore, and spends many lonesome hours moping around on his living room couch. Exactly why he is depressed isn't evident, but that's not the question his family, or the audience for that matter, is asking. It is clear from the get-go that we are about to embrace a very somber film, since Walter is kicked out of his home, and his immediate course of action is to attempt to kill himself before we even hear his voice for the first time. He fails, but not without injury, and appears to wake up with a split personality, talking to himself with a hand puppet in the form of a beaver that he saved from the trash earlier. Also, the Beaver has an Australian accent. While a tad irritating at times, it is probably necessary to be able to distiguish exactly "who" it is that is speaking, and it is actually quite effective (although born in New York, Gibson's parents are both from Australia, and he moved there for most of his young adulthood). The Beaver promises to fix Walter's life and get him out of his slump of a depression. To the surprise of his wife Meredith (Foster), it is working. He is being himself again, and relatively normal. The downside, of course, is that Walter isn't normal, but actually somewhat psychotic. Under the impression that he is being treated in a professional program, Walter's wife accepts him in her home again, and their youngest son Riley is as happy as ever. Not only does his Dad spend more time with him, but that beaver is so funny! To top it off, Walter designs a record-breaking (and beaver-themed) toy that breaks records in sales. So not only did the Beaver save the family, but he saved the company too! Hooray for the Beaver!
Only, there is another son of the household. Porter (Anton Yelchin), is a high school senior, perfectly bright, and is accepted into a fancy prestiged college. But, like most of us simple-minded folk, he just has his demons. He uses his gift for words to write fellow students' essays, if the price is right. He has a deep hole in his bedroom wall that is mysteriously the same shape as his head. Also, he despises his father. In what I have cleverly diagnosed as a symptom of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, he impeccabely organizes rows of post-it notes on his bedroom wall, each note listing a quality he shares with his father, with a mission to one day remove all said notes and differentiate from his father completely. Not very subtle. So to learn that not only is his father permanantly back in his home, but he brought the damn beaver with him as well. Not surprisingly, Porter doesn't welcome his father with open arms.
 All the while this going on, we have yet to see any real insight of Walter's mind as a human being, other than the fact that he is insane. Walter doesn't confront any of his issues, and chooses to use the Beaver as a sort of mask to hide behind. Even his wife gives up and chooses to ignore it. It is finally when Walter and his wife prepare to leave for a night out together when Meredith finally orders him to cut the shit with the puppet and have a normal dinner. As predicted, things don't go very well, and Walter has a stunningly realistic public freakout at the restaurant the moment Meredith confronts him about ditching the Beaver for good. 
Being the executive of a major toy company, Walter is a sort of celebrity, and the Beaver boosts his status through the charts, appearing on several shows, advertisements, etc. What is noticeable is that the media is witnessing the mental breakdown of this man, who clearly needs help, and they only continue to throw money at him an fuel the fire. Sound familiar? It is an interesting stab at the heartlessness of the media, and how Matt Lauer clearly has no soul. 
Meanwhile, Porter continues to ignore his father, and instead invests his time in Norah (Jennifer Lawrence), a new "client" who he has become accustomed to. That is, until he messes it up by attempting to force her to deal with her dark history. To top it off, Walter - in a lame Dad fashion - totally embarrasses him in front of her with the Beaver. Porter angrily responds by attempting to forcefully remove the puppet from his father's hand, and Walter actually harms his son to defend his furry friend. This was a wake up call of sorts, and sparks a series of events that begin to bring Walter out of the darkness and remember what and who his priorities are. 
When things really hit rock bottom with the family, Walter and his son are finally brought together and begin to understand one another. While The Beaver doesn't have a terribly depressing resolution, it isn't exactly a cheerful one either. Walter is still sick, and his son probably still hates him, as all punk-ass, mood-swinging teenagers will. However, the film still feels complete, because in the end, everyone is finally open about their problems. Most importantly, Walter and his son finally connect together as human beings struggling to find their place in the world, and accept each other for who they are, even though that they are most likely aware that this unfamiliar "connection" could go away as soon as it arrived, and that the path to eternal happiness is a long one. The trick is to have someone by your side, because no one can do it alone. The Beaver is about confronting your fears, issues, or whatever demons you got going on, because while Walter is constantly belittled for failing to do so, the truth of it is just about nobody around him has their shit together either. Jen refuses to accept, let alone acknowledge her dark past, and even Meredith continues to close her eyes to the fact that Walter is mentally sick, and nothing will go back to normal as soon as he feels like it. Honestly, the only sane one in the house is the six year-old. 
It should be noted that Anton Yelchin gives a seriously under-appreciated performance here, but seems to constantly be overshadowed by the whole Mel-Gibson-is-trying-to-save-himself thing. While Yelchin might be noticeably too old for the role (18 years-old is pushing it), he is certainly convincing as a guy who is simply confused about who he is. Let's face it, at 18, none of us do. Yelchin reaches out for us, and my fractured walls will testify to this. It is a nice departure from the usual "cute kid" role, and certainly a nice welcome. 
As for Mel Gibson, I would only suggest that this film was released at the worst possible time in his career, because of the certain fate that it will only be analyzed by most as his attempt at rehabilitation. Which, admittedly, it is. But the film is much deeper than that, and should be taken more seriously, despite how off-putting and silly it is at times. Either way you look at it, it's Mel Gibson talking with a hand puppet. Goofy stuff. So while The Beaver certainly isn't a Terrance Mallick film by any means, critics shouldn't be so quick to dismiss it, because the general audience certainly will, since many of them refuse to view a movie associated with Gibson purely because of his unfortunate (and kind of hilarious) history, and it is a shame. The marketing for the film was nearly nonexistent, and the only reason it lived at all is because of that "Jew hater". Judging from the film's $21 million budget, and it's less-then $1 million earnings, this accusation isn't too far off. Of course, I in no way endorse or excuse the things he has said and done, I just refuse to be as simple minded as to refuse a work of art because of association alone. My hope is that Gibson will simply clean up his act and continue making entertaining films like he does best, whether the whiny public wants them or not.