The Beaver was intended as a very specific kind of movie: one in which rich white people have the kind of problems the rest of us just sort of deal with, only these drama queens have to resort to something ridiculous. In this case, Mel Gibson uses a beaver puppet to talk through his problems in a Michael Caine voice.
Tagline: He’s here to save Walter’s life.
More Accurate Tagline: He’s the last nail in the coffin of Mel Gibson’s career.
Guilty Party: It would be tempting to blame Mel Gibson for this one, since his public meltdowns lend the film a queasy quality of voyeurism. It’s not as much fun watching someone legitimately unhinged play a crazy person. Gibson, however, is merely a symptom. This one is the fault of Jodie Foster, who took a script that could have been an ideal vehicle for Steve Carrell or Jim Carrey (both men were considered for the lead role) and turned it into a dour meditation on depression. Foster doesn’t seem to understand that a man wielding a puppet is funny, and moreover doesn’t understand what the fuck you people are laughing at.
Synopsis: Walter Black (Gibson) is the kind of asshole who uses “summer” as a verb. He lives in a huge house, runs his own company, has a wife and two sons, but is horribly depressed, the reasons for which are never explored. The film makes passing reference to his father’s suicide when he was young, and he mentions at one point that he was not ready to take over as president of the company (A toy company! Oh, the delicious whimsy!), but it really comes off that Walter is filled with ennui about his awesome life. I’m left to conclude that one night at Ruth’s Chris, he ordered the ’65 Bordeaux and got the ’67 and was sent into a downward spiral of shame and rage that eventually crushed his psyche.
His wife Meredith (Foster) kicks him out of the house, and he attempts suicide. In the pit of depression, a beaver puppet he found in the garbage starts talking to him. The next morning he returns to his family talking through the puppet and carrying a forged doctor’s note explaining the puppet helps him gain distance from the negative aspects of his personality.
The little doctor’s note apparently contains a magic spell, because once Walter shows it to anyone, they immediately regard the fact that a grown man is talking to them from a beaver puppet as a charming eccentricity. Walter reconnects with his younger son over a newfound shared love of woodworking, with his wife over not being such a self-absorbed asshole all the time, and with his job by… showing up, I guess? It’s not really clear. The only thing missing from this parade of scenes is a happy montage set to “Walking on Sunshine.”
The only person who isn’t buying Walter’s sudden transformation is his son Porter (Anton Yelchin). This kid hates his dad so much he keeps a list of all the ways they’re similar, and periodically headbutts a growing hole in his bedroom wall. Porter has a job writing papers for other kids, charging $200 a pop. $200 in high school was more money than I’d see in a year, but whatever. The head cheerleader/valedictorian (Jennifer Lawrence) can’t deliver her speech, and so pays Porter $500 for it. Good fucking Christ. How many websites is she doing porn on that she can afford that? So they start a romance thing, leading to me calling them J-Law and the Yelch.
Eventually, Meredith figures out that no therapist in his right mind would prescribe a puppet, and leaves Walter for lying to her. Walter loses what’s left of his mind and cuts his hand off. Because just taking off the puppet would be too easy, I guess. Oh, well. And in the end, everything is fine, only Walter is in a mental institution and jobless.
Life-Changing Subtext: Evil lies in your left, or sinister, hand.
Defining Quote: “You give the word, we’ll make the turd.” — The Beaver. I like to think someone said this to Jodie Foster in the development stage.
Standout Performance: Mel Gibson as Walter Black and the Beaver. Gibson is a man of outsized charisma, in the sense that whatever emotion he wants to convey, be it happiness, depression, or rage that his Russian girlfriend isn’t blowing him, comes through crystal clear. In The Beaver he turns off the charisma entirely, showing the hollow man inside. It’s the wrong choice for the material, but it’s still interesting.
What’s Wrong: I touched on this briefly, but it bears repeating: with the possible exception of Porter, no one reacts to Walter in a realistic way. There is usually a momentary furrowing of the brow to indicate that this is a serious film, and a man using a beaver puppet to do a cockney accent is a little queer, but that’s quickly dispelled as the magic of the Beaver sweeps everyone along on a magic stream of cockney pixie dust.
Additionally, this is a film about rich white people, by rich white people, and for rich white people, so a simple victory is not enough for it. Not only is Walter’s personal life floundering in the opening, but his company is dying as well. So he hatches the brilliant idea of selling woodworking kits to children, and of course these become huge runaway successes. And when Walter appears in interviews with the puppet, he becomes a media sensation rather than laughingstock. It’s wish fulfillment for people who already have everything.
Flash of Competence: I imagine Jennifer Lawrence in a cheerleader outfit probably qualifies.
Best Scenes: J-Law and the Yelch are in their own film. J-Law is a talented artist (as well as being a cheerleader and valedictorian and oh my god I hate these people so much) but she’s hidden it away ever since her brother killed himself with drugs. The Yelch takes it upon himself to bring this side of her out. With almost the same cast — except the parents would have been the parents from Ferris Bueller or something — this would be a perfect Afterschool Special. J-Law right before Winter’s Bone, the Yelch right before Star Trek. I’m getting upset just thinking about it. Let’s move on.
All right, so Walter’s relaunch of the toy company centers around giving a bunch of kids sharp objects and a block of wood. This isn’t his biggest dick move. Nope, when he first arrives at the company with the beaver puppet, he pledges that he’s returning control of the projects to the teams. Then, without warning, takes them away again to produce the woodworking kits. Ever think that being a self-absorbed prick is what got you in trouble in the first place? And sadly, there is no montage of lawsuits involving nine-fingered children.
After Meredith leaves him, Walter turns on the Beaver. What follows is a fight scene between a man and the puppet on his arm. Hilarious, right? Well, someone tell the music guy, because the dirge playing makes this sound like a scene from Braveheart.
Transcendent Moment: Once Walter puts on the puppet, he never takes it off. Never. This includes the scene where he reconnects with his wife. Using his dick. Oh yes, there is a sex scene in which Mel Gibson’s Beaver goes down on Jodie Foster’s Beaver. And if that weren’t enough, they go for a menage in the shower. It’s like watching your parents have sex. With a beaver puppet.
The Beaver was sunk by the toxic press of its star, but it is terrible for so many other reasons that have nothing to do with anti-semitism or domestic violence. It’s what happens when Oscarbait goes horribly, hilariously awry.