|Mel Gibson (with The Beaver), Jodie Foster, Anton Yelchin, and Jennifer Lawrence star in The Beaver.|
Maybe Jodie Foster just isn't a very good director. She has yet to make a well-received film – though a sample size of three is not enough to draw definitive conclusions – while at the helm. She gets talented actors to work in these projects, some of whom have Academy Awards on their resumés, but something in the material never really clicks. Such was the case with Little Man Tate (1991) and Home for the Holidays (1995), and it continues on with her most recent effort, The Beaver (2011).
Sure, Foster publicly lamented that Mel Gibson's tirades were sure to draw negative attention to the film (it wasn't as though Gibson was a bright and shiny commodity when she brought him on to star in the movie). She also made some veiled statements that the studio neither promoted it or secured a good release date. None of those factors apply to me, since I saw it much later and – even with his screaming anti-semetic and other drunken behaviors – I am not troubled by seeing Gibson starring in a film. I like Mel Gibson as an actor and director, excepting Apocalypto (2006) which bored me to no end. I am willing to put his hateful bits aside and watch him perform.
Gibson is given the most realized role in Kyle Killen's script. As Walter Balck, Gibson is a marginally successful man (his success is due to inheritance more than diligence or ability) who has fallen into an apparently irreversible state of clinical depression. Rather than allow the audience to experience this, to invest anything in how this changes his life – destroys the meaning he had found in it – Foster gives the audience a voice over courtesy of the Beaver. And this is before we have been introduced to the Beaver. It isn't as though this is done to save on running time; The Beaver clocks in at a brief 91 minutes (and take about five of that away for the closing credits). Foster sets up the tale with bullet points that don't help establish the severity of Walter's condition.
The rest of the Black family is either unlikeable or just there. Foster manages to have her character, Meredith Black, be both. Meredith is entirely unsupportive as a spouse and a mother, not being able to recognize her younger son when she goes to pick him up at school and kicking her husband out of the house because his mental illness is too hard for her to handle. There is absolutely nothing redeemable about the Meredith character, though I imagine Foster thought she was giving the character some heart by having her viewing old family photos on her computer at work – hey, way to fail as employee as well – but Meredith's insistence that Walter return to what he used to be (and not necessarily get better) marks her as a damaging factor in everyone's life.
Anton Yelchin (I don't know why this guy keeps getting work) is tasked with the least sympathetic character in the movie. As Porter Black – it is entirely possible he is a douchebag because his parents (read: Kyle Killen) gave him the pretentious name 'Porter' – Yelchin is supposed to portray ultra-smart, mildly smarmy, and borderline depressed all at once. I don't know that anyone could pull that off (and shame on Killen for writing the character the way he did), but it is well beyond Yelchin. There is nothing about Porter that gives credibility to his gift for writing or empathy. Indeed, if he had any degree of empathy, why is it so removed from his family? All of them? It seems that Porter – who gets as much screen time as Walter and the Beaver – has these abilities so that he can interact with Norah (Jennifer Lawrence).
Norah is a woefully underdeveloped character, a high school valedictorian with a 4.0 GPA (I guess this private school has no 5 point honors classes, so sure) and cheerleader who is also a talented artist coping with the heartbreak of her brother's tragic death. Maybe the grab-bag of possibilities was supposed to stand in for character, but it just smacks of lazy writing. Lawrence doesn't get to do much with the role, either. She gives a performance that is somewhere between her work on The Bill Engvall Show (2007-09) and X-Men: First Class (2011), and well below her outstanding turn as Ree Dolly in Winter's Bone (2010). She gets to respond to Porter's bullshit, and then need him to give her the ability to be expressive. I would expect much more from Foster than to willingly craft a movie where a girl needs a boy in order to find some sense of completion.
The film itself has little real sense of time. The Beaver takes charge of Walter's toy company, he and Walter become a kind of celebrity, and lose everything all in the span of a couple of months. The new toy that launches as a $100 million dollar winner is being shoveled into landfills within weeks. I would guess the original script had the story paced differently, but whether it did or not Foster does nothing to help it find some kind of reality in the regard of time.
There is also the issue of how Foster occasionally makes light of the severe depression Walter faces. Yes, his suicide attempt plays rather matter-of-factly (and with some dark humor), but the rest of the jokes and jabs at the depressed guy, the guy who thinks his life is worthless come across as mean. No one in the film seems that appreciative of Walter's condition or wants to help him; everyone just wants things to be good for them. Oddly, the Beaver is both the most likeable and most dastardly character in the entire cast (but he sure sounds Australian to me, not English). I would have liked to see more from the Beaver, how it acted to erase Walter's connection to the parts of his life he cherished. But neither Foster nor Killen seemed that interested in giving that kind of take to the disassociative state the Beaver brings about.
I like Jodie Foster as an actor, but I think she needs to stay out of the director's chair. That or make sure she has much better material with which to work. There is nothing positive about The Beaver that will make it memorable. Yelchin and Lawrence no doubt have many roles ahead of them where they can portray better designed characters, but Foster and Gibson are not going to be offered prime roles any more. To have both of them waste their talents in this mess is simply depressing.
The Beaver doesn't satisfy as a pure drama, and its humor is often dark and hurtful. It has a good cast (except for Yelchin, who I think is not worth hiring...but that apparently is just me), but nothing to say and no style about it. I would give it a D+ as a theatrical release (where it would be a solid C were this a made-for-TV movie). I say avoid it, not because Gibson is toxic but because Foster doesn't know how to tell an interesting story as a director.