So, there’s this thing in Hollywood that they call the Black List. The Black List comes out at the end of each year and basically, it’s a list of the “best” unproduced screenplays of the year. The reason I put best in quotation marks is because the list is 1) determined by studio people and studio asskissers and we all know that those people are toadsuckers, 2) film is not a writer’s medium so the best screenplay in the world can still be ruined if the wrong director gets involved with it, and 3) the films made from the scripts on the blacklist always seem to end up sucking like I did during my sophomore year of high school. Seriously, that was a lot of sucking.
The Beaver (written by Kyle Killen) was at the top of the Black List in 2008 and now, 3 years later, it’s finally been made by Jodie Foster and released to mixed reviews and indifferent box office. I saw The Beaver on Saturday. So does, the Beaver continue the tradition of disappointing movies being produced from Hollywood’s “best” screenplays? Well, yes and no. The final 20 minutes of the Beaver are incredibly effective and almost moving. Unfortunately, they’re not effective enough to make up for the wildly uneven 90 minutes that come before.
One thing that films that top the Black List tend to have in common is that they almost always try to tell a very traditional, rather obvious story by using some quirky gimmick that becomes less and less clever the more you think about it. The Beaver continues that tradition. Mel Gibson plays a guy named Jerry who runs a toy company and who has become clinically depressed. After a unsuccessful attempt to commit suicide, he comes up with a novel solution to deal with his inability to communicate his feelings. He starts to walk around with a beaver hand puppet and whenever he has to talk to his estranged wife (Jodie Foster) or his angry son (Anton Yelchin), he does so through the puppet. And, as long as he has that beaver puppet, he has the strength to be a good husband and a good father. At first, Foster is happy — if confused — but soon she finds herself growing frustrated with always having to talk to the Beaver as opposed to speaking to her husband. However, Gibson has now grown so dependent on the Beaver that he can’t give it up, even though the Beaver has now started to insult Gibson whenever there’s no one else around.
Eventually, this leads Gibson to doing something very shocking and quite disturbing and it’s once that happens that The Beaver actually starts to work as a film. Unfortunately, by that point, there’s only 20 minutes left in the film and we’ve had to sit through a whole lot of subplots, none of which seem to belong in the same movie.
On the one hand, we have Gibson reviving his company by launching a toy line based on the Beaver. These scenes are probably the weakest in the film. Gibson shows up at work and tells everyone that the Beaver hand puppet is in charge and nobody quits. Apparently, nobody calls up the tabloids to tell them that CEO of a major toy company has apparently had a nervous breakdown. Instead, work goes on as normal. Every time I saw Gibson’s character sitting in his office with that hand puppet, I wondered, “Does this company not have shareholders?”
Meanwhile, Yelchin is dealing with the beginning stages of the same clinical depression that has crippled Gibson and (its implied) led to his grandfather killing himself years earlier. A high school senior, Yelchin has a lucrative career writing other students papers for them. He’s hired by Jennifer Lawrence who asks him to write her graduation speech. It also turns out that Lawrence is not only a popular cheerleader who is graduating at the top of her class but she’s also a graffiti artist as well who has a convenient family tragedy that she needs help getting through. Now, that’s not as impossible as it may sound because my sister Erin’s a truly talented artist who was also a cheerleader in high school but that doesn’t change the fact that Lawrence’s character still basically came across as just being a typical male fantasy, the nurturing madonna figure who only exists to justify and/or excuse the behavior of an obviously autobiographical male figure. Still, Lawrence and Yelchin’s subplot is probably the most compelling part of the movie.
As you can probably guess, the main problem with the movie is that it’s essentially about a guy walking around with a Beaver puppet. Neither Kellen’s screenplay nor Foster’s direction seems to be sure just how seriously we should take that beaver and as a result, it just comes across as being a really cutesy idea that never really works as well as the movie seems to think that it does. As well, it’s hard to take anything seriously once the word Beaver is introduced into the conversation. For instance, as we watched Gibson bonding with his employees, my friend Jeff suggested that all Gibson needed to do in order to feel better about his life was to “stick his hand up a beaver and move his fingers.” However, I have to admit that the worst beaver joke was made by me and it happened about halfway through the film when we see Gibson and Foster having sex, with Gibson keeping that beaver on his hand. After they finish, Foster turns her back to him and Gibson caresses her face with — yes, you guess it — the beaver. “I bet that’s not the first time she’s had a beaver in her face,” I said. All of this could have been avoided if the film just hadn’t been made in the first place.
Still, The Beaver is not a complete failure and when the film does work, it works so well that it makes it even more frustrating that the movie, as a whole, doesn’t. Even before the final 20 minutes, the film has the occasional intelligent line or knowing detail that indicates that, if not for the whole beaver thing, this could have been a very touching film about the pain of mental illness. Perhaps the film’s greatest strength is that it features a quartet of excellent performances. Yelchin and Lawrence have a real chemistry and watching them, you kinda wish that the movie would have just focused on them. Foster also does a good job as Gibson’s confused wife and, it must be admitted, that Mel Gibson is perfectly cast in the lead role. He looks like hell here and there’s next to no vanity to be found in his performance here. He actually probably gives the best performance of his career here but, I do have to admit, it was difficult to watch him onscreen without imagining some alcohol-soaked voice ranting and raving and spewing out a lot of anti-Semitic hate.
We saw the Beaver at the Plano Angelika and I have to admit that, even if the film didn’t really work, at least we had a good time seeing the film. On the Saturday afternoon that we went to see it, the Shops at Legacy (where the Plano Angelika is located) were having a street fair with live music and booths and everything. So, at the very least, I got to literally dance in the street both before and after seeing The Beaver.
That was fun.