Allow me to preface this review by mentioning that The Beaver got laughs. Uproarious, clapping, breathless laughter from a nearly packed theatre. Eventually, as the movie drudged on, the laughter became subdued and the audience slipped into a state of tonal confusion – they no longer knew why they were laughing at themes of depression, suicide, and other emergences of mental illness. Normally, I’d be okay with this outcome. I enjoy when a film can shock me into a state of devastation and disbelief.
But The Beaver fails, and I’ll tell you why:
Walter Black (Mel Gibson) is depressed. We do not know why he is depressed, but we know that he is depressed. After he is kicked out his home and separated from his wife (Jodie Foster) and two sons (Anton Yelchin & Riley Thomas Stewart) Walter hits rock-bottom and — in a very crowd-pleasing moment — he botches an alcohol induced suicide attempt. Think slapstick suicide. He is roused awake the next morning by something that will soon be known as The Beaver: the battered and mangy hand-puppet he rescued from the dumpster the night before. Naturally, the hand-puppet takes over Walter’s persona and becomes the redeeming force behind his newfound vigour and determination to win back the favour of his family.
Walter’s creepy new British/Australian(?) friend is met with surprising acceptance from his rationalizing wife and delighted youngest son. His wife agrees to allow him to continue this therapeutic process and doesn’t waste any time in inviting Walter back into the family home. She agrees to address the puppet instead of speaking directly to her husband and seems temporarily satisfied with the beaver taking over in parenting, sex, work, etc. But of course, she is a roller coaster engineer and is therefore thematically familiar with the emotional ups and downs of life! She takes it in stride. The only resistance comes from Walter’s oldest son, Porter, who seems to be the only family member who recognizes that becoming entirely dependent on a puppet to live your life is unhealthy.
What irks me about this film is the way in which it deals with mental illness. As Steph mentioned in her review, the movie fails to achieve a balance between its serious subject matter and its desire to be quirky and fun. For example, why was the audience laughing hysterically at a scene in which a teenager, desperate not to turn out to be “crazy” like his father, smashes his head repeatedly against a wall in anger? And why were they later quiet and confused when the same kid acts out in the same manner? At what point does the movie want us to realize that mental illness is actually not as quirky as we thought it was? I don’t take issue with a dark comedy that deals with mental illness, but I do take issue with a movie that fails to be funny and fails to be serious while simultaneously trying to achieve both of these things.
Eventually when the situation comes to a head (because you can’t go on being a beaver forever), the story has become so flimsy and uneven that instead of feeling emotionally invested or engaged I felt disconnected and wary of the film’s intent. Much like the characters in the movie, the film itself seems to avoid the concept of actually dealing with depression, dependency, and personality disorders and instead mishandles it until it becomes awkwardly inauthentic and formulaic. Perhaps as inauthentic as the idea of Mel Gibson attempting to resurrect his career by taking on an allegorical tale about a defeated and emotionally overwrought man with his hand shoved up a beaver.