Reviewed by Stephen Himes
Jodie Foster doesn’t really care if you like “The Beaver.” Really, giving a thumbs-up or thumbs-down to “The Beaver” is beside the point. Jodie Foster wants to lecture us, Mel Gibson, Hollywood, and Matt Lauer about…well, something about leaving people alone, except when they need help, but only then, from certain people. Everybody else stay the hell out of it. Or something like that.
Whatever Foster’s message, she’s got one, and she wants to make damn sure you know it. You may think, like the audience I sat with, that a movie about a guy who fights depression with a ratty old bucktoothed beaver puppet would be a boilerplate Hollywood all-you-need-is-love-to-triumph-over-adversity story, with the middle-aged patient sad about his failures, but then realizing the love of his family is all you need. The movie opens with a vaguely Australian accented voice-over to introduce Walter Black, the son of a recently deceased toy company CEO, collapsing under the weight of expectations, thus turning to sleeping in the pool and pouring vodka on the tv during Kung Fu’s “young grasshopper” wisdom. Considering that this movie is called “The Beaver” and features Mel Gibson talking through a puppet during sex with his wife, you’d think this should be funny in the “failed suicide is funny in a comedy because we know he’ll snap out of it” kind of way.
But it’s not. Soon, Walter’s wife Meredith (Foster herself) kicks him out of the house and away from his two boys, the fifth-graderish kid who thinks his dad can do no wrong, and the teenager with post-its of why he hates him all over his room. When Walter tosses out some old possessions, he pulls the beaver puppet out of the trash and improvises a kind of at-home psychiatric therapy. Eventually, Meredith allows her husband to integrate himself back into the family, but she just can’t stand this puppet thing! Why can’t he just snap out of it!
In real life, Foster has defended her friend Mel Gibson through his, shall we say, moral failings. That’s not the Mel I know, she says. He’s not himself when he’s saying those awful things about Jews and gays and women. Something, she says, must be wrong with him. So here, if we imagine Meredith and Walter as proxies for real life, it seems like Foster lecturing Gibson through this movie. Look, Mel, whatever is bothering you—this crap is ridiculous. Just snap out of it! This isn’t the Mel I know!
Seemingly, both Meredith and Foster refuse to accept that the sick Walter/Mel is a real aspect of the complex and contradictory Walter/Mel. In their minds, the bad part is just a phase—something’s not right. As dramatized by “The Beaver,” Foster’s message is confusing. Foster shows us the intimate details of Walter’s depression, the vodka-soaked televisions, the crippling inability to stay awake during a board meeting. Thus, we recognize that this isn’t a phase—his depression is a sickness that will require a years of therapy. So when Meredith can’t keep it together during an anniversary night out at a fancy restaurant, we see her point but are dumbfounded that she doesn’t recognize the depths of his illness. Meredith tries to badger him out of it, which alienates the audience because we’re made to sympathize with his condition.
And this is where Foster’s message really gets weird. Part of the reason Meredith alienates us is that Foster presents Walter’s illness in an absurdist way. How are we supposed to make sense of this graying, wrinkled, angry Hollywood icon—whom we cannot separate from his angry anti-Semitic and misogynist rants—playing a clinical depressive, juxtaposed with a googly-eyed, bucktoothed, fuzzy stuffed puppet? When Walter uses the beaver for inspiration to save his failing company, and thus creates a nationwide toy sensation, the entire scenario is funny because, well, this CEO has a damned puppet on his hand at all times. Foster invites us to laugh because of the expectation that she’s going to give us the Hollywood ending. The puppet has served its purpose, and soon it will come off and the Blacks will be one big happy family once again.
Then Walter goes on Today with Matt Lauer. Lauer refuses to treat Walter as an eccentric on a rebranding mission. Instead, he wants to know whether the beaver is symptomatic of a larger crack-up, and why are you, a clearly disturbed man, using your illness a vehicle to sell toys? Whether Lauer (or John Stewart, who also cameos) realizes it, they are also being lectured by Jodie Foster. The obvious question is, hey Matt Lauer, if you’re so disturbed by Walter Black’s exploitation of the media, then why are you exploiting Walter Black on the most-watched morning show in the country?
Thus is “The Beaver”’s seminal moment: Walter—though Foster must intend for us to see Mel Gibson in this line too—tells Lauer “People love a train wreck when it’s not happening to them.”
If you’re keeping score at home, Jodie Foster has lectured:
1) Mel Gibson for being a train wreck and embarrassing his family and friends (including Jodie Foster)
2) Matt Lauer and the rest of the celebrity-media complex for exploiting said train wreck
3) The audience for rubber-necking at the train wreck.
4) And maybe Oksana Grigorieva for not understanding the nature of her baby-daddy’s illness.
Point 3 is where Foster’s movie really gets scolding over the last half hour. We’re invited to giggle at scenes of Walter dirty-talking his wife through the beaver puppet, then told it’s a train wreck, and then she thrusts the absurdity of the beaver in a our face while Walter does some truly horrific, self-destructive things. Really, how else does Jodie Foster expect us to react to scenes like this:
Without spoiling, let’s just say that there is a moment is which Jodie Foster asks you to feel like the worst person in the world for ever having snickered at Mel Gibson with a beaver puppet on his hand. She doesn’t care whether this makes you hate her movie or not. She’s out to make a point, dammit, and that point is that Mel Gibson isn’t funny, and we’re all complicit in thrwarting Mel Gibson’s recovery. Except that Mel won’t just snap the hell out of it. Whatever, everybody’s just wrong and shameful, ok. QUIT LAUGHING AT THE BEAVER PUPPET, YOU HORRIBLE, HORRIBLE PEOPLE!
This doesn’t even mention Walter’s son Porter (Anton Yelchin), who would seem a candidate for the Trench Coat Mafia if not for his odd friendship with valedictorian/cheerleader/underground street artist Norah (Jennifer Lawrence), who hires him to write her graduation speech. As cliché as this sounds on paper, Yelchin and Lawrence bring intensity to the relationship that, frankly, transcends the rest of the film. The characters are broad and obvious (in doing others’ papers, you see, he’s putting voice to what others can’t seem to say themselves—just like Walter’s puppet!), but Yelchin’s aggressiveness creates a harder-edged Ricky Fitts from “American Beauty.” Imagine Fitts falling in love with a cross between Mena Suvari and Banksy, and you get the idea. In fact, Lawrence matches Yelchin’s cold-eyed cynicism with the underlying ruthlessness of those burdened by great expectations. Lawrence understands that her Renaissance girl act doesn’t idealize Norah in an abstract way, but humanizes her by commanding Porter’s respect not just as a hot chick with some brains. She helps you see how Norah would find the jockocracy, undoubtedly at her beck and call, boring and unworthy of her ambitions, while Porter is interesting because his resistence prevents him from idealizing her.
If we take these characters to the meta-level, perhaps its Yelchin who voices the audience’s proper reaction to Jodie Foster’s badgering of the audience.
Really, is this some kind of joke? You let Mel Gibson back into our lives with a talking hamster, and we’re supposed to take this seriously? Like Porter, it will make you put your head through a wall.