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If you've seen the searingly dark and magnificent HARD CANDY, you may remember that there's a moment at which its protagonist, Hayley (a teenage girl who is about to carry out an atrociously savage act), wonders what would happen if she were caught by the authorities. She jokes that they wouldn't do much to her other than have her do some hours of community service, and she wryly comments that "Jodie Foster would direct the movie version of it." Since I hadn't seen a film directed by Jodie Foster prior to watching the mediocre excuse for a drama that is THE BEAVER, I had no idea what Hayley was talking about, but I do now. The trailers tell you that the film is about a character played by Mel Gibson who is having family issues, and therefore, decides to start communicating through a stuffed animal, rather than speaking for himself. What the trailers don't tell you is that if it weren't for that somewhat unorthodox aspect of the plot, this would be straight-up soap opera material.
When the film begins, Walter (Mel Gibson) has already been kicked out of his house by his wife Meredith (Jodie Foster, doing double duty here as star and director), which means that we're not even aware of the reason why he was kicked out (and I wonder how many people will realize that that information is never given to us during the film). The couple has two kids: high schooler Porter (Anton Yelchin), who is fully supportive of his mother and is completely thrilled that she "finally" decided to kick his dad out, and the much younger Henry (Riley Thomas Stewart), who is much too innocent to understand what is going on. After a few failed (and admittedly funny) suicide attempts in his hotel room, Walter seems to come up with a better idea. He finds a beaver stuffed animal in the garbage. The next day he goes right back home, affects an Australian accent, and starts pretending as though the beaver is speaking for him. He hands Meredith a card that says that this is a psychological mechanism that he is using to deal with his depression. Meredith, of course, wants to save her family, so she decides to play along. Porter is predictably outraged, while the blissfully ignorant little Henry starts having tons of fun talking to the beaver, as though it were a new toy in the house.
There's potentially a good independent drama to be made out of THE BEAVER's premise, but the version that has recently reached theaters certainly isn't it. What sucks is that Gibson's role is total "awards bait" and should've easily garnered him some recognition, but I don't think that's possible, considering that parts of the film feel more appropriate for daytime programming than for the film screen. When Meredith gets angry at Walter at one point and decides to leave the house, and she says "I'm taking the kids and everything we can carry!" I wanted to throw rotten fruits at the screen, and then ask "Why wasn't this sent directly to the Lifetime movie network?"
If it weren't for the offbeat plot line involving the titular stuffed animal, this would be nothing but a vapid family dysfunction drama. What I object to severely is how obvious it is that the beaver is used not so much for purposes of plot development as it is to ensure that such vapidness isn't so obvious to the viewer. And that wouldn't bother me so much if it weren't for the fact that, during its final act, the film uses the stuffed animal for even more manipulative purposes. You see, we get the obligatory scene in which Walter has to "face the beaver" and things even get violent. That's fine. What's NOT fine is the decision by the filmmakers to include suspenseful music here. It's off-putting and distracts from the emotional turmoil that the protagonist is supposed to be experiencing. Even worse, it's further evidence that the film isn't really interested in the depth of the psychological issues it's presenting as it is in offering cheap, transitory satisfaction to an audience who it clearly views as unintelligent and undemanding. Adding suspenseful music during this pivotal and emotionally climactic moment is like adding a laugh track during a funny moment in an episode of The Sopranos: sure, there may be humor involved in that particular moment, but you have to consider the CONTEXT of the story you're presenting - some things just aren't appropriate, and shouldn't be done just for the sake of milking your material in the cheapest way possible.
There's a subplot in THE BEAVER that could've been the movie's saving grace but ends up being every bit as much of a flop as the rest of the film. At his high school, Porter secretly makes money writing papers for his classmates. One day, he is approached by Norah (Jennifer Lawrence), the class valedictorian. Turns out that, despite how smart she is, she can't come up with what to say for her graduation speech, and wants Porter to write it for her. So, he starts getting to know her and, of course, romantic sparks start flying. So far, so good. But the culmination of this plot line (at the graduation ceremony) is executed so poorly and senselessly that it reeks of "Okay, let's just resolve this issue of the movie and move on.". It's not only one of those predictable moments in which someone makes the "sudden" decision to speak from the heart (cringe), but it's also the fact that what is ultimately said feels wholly unrealistic and scripted. Not even someone like the Oscar-nominated Jennifer Lawrence can save something as poorly executed as this.
If that were all, I wouldn't be so harsh on the film, but the biggest problem here is that we have one of those denouements in which there's a montage that is meant to suggest to us that all the problems have somehow magically gone away. I don't believe that ALL genres of film need to adhere to realism, but when you're talking about a serious drama about family conflicts, the least that a movie can do is be relatable and present an outcome that appears to at least be congruent with the emotional issues that were presented. Anyone who has had marriage problems and watches THE BEAVER will likely think "Oh, that's nice. I wish my problems could be solved that easily, too." It's offensive. To make matters worse, the final voiceover is a ludicrous attempt at tying together something that never truly meshed in the first place.
Mel Gibson does what he can, but like I said, the film doesn't offer him room to give the Oscar-caliber performance he should've been able to give here. As for Jodie Foster, I'm terribly sorry to say this, especially because I've already been critical enough of the film she directed, but it's been a while since I've seen an Academy Award winner give such a shrill and forced performance. I lost count of the number of times in which she went over the top in this film. Despite his youth, Anton Yelchin has done way better work elsewhere (see CHARLIE BARTLETT, FIERCE PEOPLE and ALPHA DOG). And there's the inevitably upsetting fact that THE BEAVER chooses to go for the cliche of the rebellious older son and the complacently ignorant younger son. Where's the sense of creativity?
Family dysfunction dramas have figured very frequently in the realm of indie films over the last few years. THE BEAVER is decidedly one of the failures of the lot. Again, it's the type of film that should've been sent straight over to the Lifetime Movie Network, were it not perhaps for the fact that it has two extremely famous actors on its list of credits. I do think Foster has given terrific performances in the past, and perhaps it's for that reason that it pains me to say this more than it would for a director whose face I don't recognize, but the film epitomizes mediocrity. The good thing I'll take away from it, though, is that next time I watch HARD CANDY, I'll actually be in on Hayley's joke, and there's no doubt I'll laugh knowingly.
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