Walter Black (Gibson) is a man whose personal and professional life is in free-fall due to mental illness. The CEO of a toy company, he has presided over the family company’s steady slide in stock-market value. At home his inability to connect emotionally has alienated his family. Wife Meredith (Foster) throws herself into her career designing roller coasters, youngest son Henry (Stewart) is withdrawn in response to the lack of parental affection, older son Porter (Yelchin) obsessively makes lists of his similarities with the father he loathes, and is courting trouble by taking money to complete other kids' schoolwork.
It’s clear that Walter has been ill for some time and we join the story at the point where the breakdown of relations between Walter and his family have reached crisis. Asked to leave home by his wife (to son Porter’s clear delight) he buys a crate of liquor, dumps his possessions in a skip, and finds a hotel in which to get royally smashed. In the skip Walter finds a discarded glove puppet which he takes – it's not clear why. Fuelled by alcohol and despair, Walter attempts to take his own life but botches it and wakes to find that the puppet – the Beaver of the title – talking to him.
Walter is manipulating the puppet, and it's voice comes from him. This is not a fantasy, The Beaver has become an extension of Walter's psyche, a device that allows him to distance his depression and negative personality traits. This sparks a remarkable transformation in almost all aspects of his life, although his wife is initially sceptical, Walter convinces her this is a proscribed therapy. Things turn around at work also. Only Porter refuses to accept his father’s transformation.
Clearly The Beaver comes dragging significant baggage, but let's try and put aside the very public disgraces of Mr Gibson, and avoid the temptation to make obvious puns on the film's title. Does this stand up as a film in it's own right? There are reasons going into this to be hopeful. The script by Kyle Killen topped the 2008 blacklist (a ranking of unproduced screenplays by industry reader recommendations). Jodie Foster has proven herself a competent director with a keen interest in stories based on inter-familial tensions. Supporting Gibson, are not only Oscar-winning Foster, but Oscar nominated Lawrence, and Yelchin.
Sadly, Foster as director fatally misjudges the material; what should be a Hall Ashby-esque razor sharp satire is blunt and muddled. Whether it was added during rewrites, or was always part of the script, it is a poor decision to continually cut away from Walter's story to that of his son Porter and his uninteresting attempt to write a valedictory speech for homecoming queen and academic star Norah (Lawrence). This sub-plot is dull and predictable. The eventual graduation speech is a bag of teen movie cliches. OMG, your parents and teachers lied to you!!!
Walter's story is interesting, but it is hard to engage with it as there is no sense of what he was like before his illness. Gibson basically gives the same tired performance here that he gave in his previous misfire, Edge of Darkness. The influence of that film can also be seen in the bizarre accent that Gibson gives to the voice of The Beaver. Some critics have wondered if this is supposed to be an Australian accent, but in fact it is a perfect imitation of Ray Winstone trying to do an American accent (ie, it sounds half East End barrowboy, half outback farmer).
The film flirts with something darker when the The Beaver begins to exert a negative influence on Walter – could the film be heading into horror territory? There are overtones of the classic Ealing horror film Dead of Night here. This potentially intriguing plot strand (insofar as it might inject some entertainment value) is dropped almost as quickly as it appears. And a sequence of Walter battling The Beaver, and thus himself, just evokes a negative comparison to a similar scene in Fight Club – which is also a reminder of what a film with an edge actually looks like.
While it's being sold as a comedy, The Beaver isn't even remotely funny (intentionally or otherwise). This is a film about serious mental illness and depression, but it sugar coats it's message. There is a particularly horrid score by Marcelo Zarvos that screams "quirky indie" and is carpeted wall-to-wall on every scene. One sequence, that had my head in my hands, finds Walter at the lowest point in his character arc. What music does Foster decides to use to exemplify Walter's debilitating depression? The whole of Radiohead's Exit Music For a Film. In a 1998 episode of Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathew's sitcom Father Ted, this exact same song was used comically as a trigger for a Priest's relapse into depression. Using Exit Music for this purpose is like putting Simply The Best on a corporate motivational video after The Office; couldn't someone, at some point have told her?
The Beaver is an unmitigated disaster, uncertain of tone and half-cocked in execution. The merciful thing would have been to let it sit on the shelf until it could be released on DVD without fanfare. Instead it's been to Cannes, and is getting a wide release where it will be seen by many to be the final nail in the coffin that Gibson buries his acting career in.