The Beaver is not a very good film, and I’d love nothing more than to lay the blame at the foot of the middle-aged white man who plays Walter Black, the depressed individual at the center of the movie. That performance is outstanding, maybe the best of the actor’s career, but it doesn’t save The Beaver from its pat predictability, its trite sentimentality, and the narrative cheats that director Jodie Foster takes. There is a good script at play here, and one hell of a remarkable lead performance, but Foster slaughters the film, turning what should’ve been a biting black comedy into a simpering family drama.
Walter Black, the CEO of his late father’s struggling toy company, is suffering from depression. He can’t get out of bed. His eldest son, Porter (Anton Yelchin), loathes him. His wife, Meredith (Jodie Foster) loves him, but doesn’t want Walter’s dark presence around their children anymore. When she kicks him out, Walter checks into a hotel. After a failed suicide attempt, Walter finds new life in an aggressively charming Beaver puppet with a cockney accent and a dominating personality. The Beaver takes over Walter, expressing for him the emotions and feelings he could not express as himself. On the flip side, The Beaver also shuts Walter out of his own life, burying him deeper into his depression.
The performance is remarkable; The Beaver feels like its own separate entity, distinct from Walter, so much so that there are moments when you forget that the Beaver is attached another man’s hand, that he’s being voiced by the soul-dead Walter. Walter is full of anguish, reserved, and barely able to speak, tormented by alcoholism and depression. But the Beaver is alive, vibrant, and domineering. The longer Walter uses The Beaver to express his emotions, to rebuild his toy company, to remake his marriage, the more The Beaver crowds out Walter. Ultimately, Walter has to fight his own hand puppet for control of his personality. It’s there where Kyle Killen’s screenplay takes Walter’s dissociative disorder too literally, and Foster buries what could be a fascinating dark comedy beneath the beats of a maudlin melodrama. Foster doesn’t know how to control the mood of the film, and it whiplashes between clever and cloying, marred by even her own performance, which feels at times like it belongs in a different film.
Yelchin does a nice job with his parallel storyline. Porter is trying hard not to turn into his father, but as finds himself — in writing papers for other students — speaking through other people’s voices, he begins careening toward the same depression that afflicts Walter. Jennifer Lawrence plays his love interest here, but she’s not given much to work with besides another rip-up-your-prepared-remarks speech straight out of the screenplay handbook. It’s a cringing doozy.
For all its similarities to Lars and the Real Girl, however, there’s a lot of interesting ideas about personality disorder, mental disease, and alcohol addiction buried beneath the wacked-out chronology, the poor editing, the awkward narrative leaps (at one point, I questioned whether a reel had been skipped in the middle of the film) and the ham-fisted melodrama. A better director could’ve worked wonders; the script would’ve fit snugly into the tone and feel of Ben Stiller’s Cable Guy, for instance. A few heavy-handed moments could’ve easily been salvaged with a dose of levity. Unfortunately, Foster runs it through the Lifetime-movie wringer, and the only thing that doesn’t get flattened is an exceptional, anguished, and uncompromising performance from the guy from the Mad Max movies. It’s the best reason to see The Beaver, but he’s also the biggest reason why you shouldn’t.