Many childish puns have been made about the title of this film – some on the way to the screenings, some in the press – and many more will be made when it hits our shores proper early next month; this is fair enough, it is after all a rather humorous euphemism. The concept of the aforetitled film is similarly comedic in synopsis; a man brought down by the dual forces of modern life – intense pressure and minutic mundanity – but escapes their shackles by planting his arm in the orifice of a puppet. Get Eddie Murphy or Adam Sandler to star and you’ve got yourself a bonafide school holiday hit, no? No, Jodie Foster’s Beaver is a more beguiling beast than such summaries suggest and much darker than you would imagine (and you have imagined).
Which is not to say that this isn’t a comedy, it’s just a very black one made for mature audiences rather than minding audiences. There are some scenes scattered throughout that simply squeeze the gimmick for giggles like the broad comedy version would – The Man goes into work with the beaver and gets weird looks, he buys the Beaver a little suit tuxedo when he and his wife are going to a fancy restaurant etc. – and these moments are perfectly timed; Foster’s direction had the audience laughing as if out of a can. This cliché comedy is, however, both late in its arrival and then short lived, leaving a much more daring brand of humour in its place.
The still-shot beaver-centric sex scenes, for example, are something that I will no doubt find myself chuckling too for some time, though they do – as any good sex scene should – leave a lot up to the imagination; the punchlines aren’t plastered on-screen or wrung out with a cowbell, it is instead up to us to laugh when we want to. It feels rather ridiculous to say so but this is actually a rather daring approach for a film to take, as it is one that stifles the amount of laughter in the moment though this is a trade-off to make those moments stay in the mind longer. So it is that the majority of laughs actually come nervously out of an altogether uncertain audience: Did he just say that? Did that just happen? Etc.
This uncertainty and these questions are what really distinguish the film from the expected family model and they both stem from the seriousness of the scripts approach. Though it is a successful comedy , though there are laughs to be had in it, the film itself is actually very bleak and purposefully so.; for a lot of middle aged men I imagine that this story would cut right to the bone, if not through it entirely. Walter, the protagonist, is not simply a quirky fellow, he is mentally ill and his depression – of which the use of a puppet intermediary is symptomatic – even then not just your usual three discarded pizza boxes style depiction of sadness , it runs through him to the core and so the central conceit is shaped as much around psychology as it is puns.
Seeing a man so down and so full of sorrow is discomforting as a viewer and so we quickly side with the idea of the Beaver when it begins to brighten up his disposition; it becomes an honestly justifiable alternative to us long before it stops being a joke. This in itself is a stunning achievement (The only other example of a such a feat that comes to my mind is that of recent film World’s Greatest Dad, which deals with similar issues to boot) but the way Foster manages it makes it seem like nothing of the sort; there is a directorial lightness of touch on show here that denotes effortlessness despite us knowing that it oft really means the opposite. The way she shoots Walter and the Beaver is genius: either focusing on the synchronized speaking or framing the beaver so that it covers his mouth, making it seem as if it really is speaking for him (It’s all very Persona).
The praise should not solely be delivered to Foster though, for the film really relies upon its lead actor to sell the role of Walter and as such the choice to rest the responsibility on the notoriously unreliable shoulders of Mel Gibson was a risky one but the gamble pays off; despite, nay because, of his recent troubles the performance given by Gibson really works. It may sound stupid given the material but he plays the role as two very different parts and this approach is entirely successful; as soon as he lowers his hand we feel instantly that this is a different character than the previous man miming through a plush puppet but they still ring true as two parts of one psyche. The thick Winstone-esque brogue of the Beaver should be hammy, reminiscent of the silly concept, and the sullen man underneath rather boring and banal but thankfully neither occurs. Mel Gibson is entirely believable as a mad man, who knew?
Something else that shocked me when seeing this was that it ‘s really not a one man movie; Mel, for instance, is given only as much screen time as Anton Yelchin who plays his son and Foster herself could easily be considered a co-lead. There is also a certain cleverness to the way that Foster has incorporated the film’s supporting characters and sub-plots; in that they are all able to engross and entertain in their own right but then also work to grow both the stories scope and impact when seen in conjunction with that core concept. Nothing has simply been thrown in, there is no comedic relief or wacky best friend to contend with, it all plays a purpose.
For example there is a focus on careers through-lining the movie; the job each character holds and their performance therein is an intimate reflection of the state of their character. Walter is a toy magnate, he runs Jerry Co. (Jericho anybody?) a failing plaything production line that has been passed down his families paternal line for generations. As his mental state improves so do the companies profit margins and vice versa; while this sounds pat in synopsis there is something distinguishing in its execution (Mise en Abyme anybody?). The company is almost a metaphor for his depression, its waves and its genetic heritage, but the delivery is never so ham-handed as to obviously be any such thing.
Yelchin’s Son, though he is still only a high school senior, also has a thematically resonant employ; he writes essays for money, but more than that he writes essay’s from the personal perspective of the client. He knows ‘how to become other people’ because he has an extreme empathy towards the personalities of other and just as strong a desire to escape his own and though this storyline is delivered in the guise of the usually shallow teen romance genre, it is actually the thematic heart of the piece, explaining as it does what it really means to live life as a puppet. This, the literal parallels between the two men’s traits and their general relationship is also very effective, forming the emotional heart of the piece. His role then is rather major.
I’m not writing an essay here (though the word count may beg to differ) and so I have avoided all details – the film itself is not so vague, I assure you – I simply see the fact that the film has these layers and levels of complexity at all as indicative of it’s uniqueness. Then there is the third act which is one part mordant, one morbid and altogether bloody bleak, but I will leave that there. Eddie Murphy hasn’t been in anything this well wounded since the infamous fat-suit from Norbit, nor was Raw! ever this dark.
So The Beaver is silly, it’s serious, deep and comedic; it’s got a bit of everything and thus is like nothing else at all and this is both its biggest boon and its downfall. You simply can’t laugh wholeheartedly at a suffering human being (Well at least I can’t) and you can’t cry over a man with a Beaver puppet on his hand (ditto); so this film can never be an outstanding effort in any one of those areas. Mediocrity is the bane of the Jack-of-all-trades and despite its distinctly different approach this is still something of a mean effort. This combined with the dark subject material make it a very hard film to love despite its individual moments of brilliance, but I can almost guarantee that whoever you are there is something in there that you will at least like.
(Thanks to Marcey for sneaking me in to the Press screening)