The Beaver

Finally, The Beaver comes to Chicago…

Honestly, the script exists in a recess of my brain where scripts that are unmemorably bad reside. It should be the sort of script that makes me say, “What the fuck — when did I read that?” when I glance through old coverage samples. Thanks to its memorable gimmick, I can’t forget it quite so easily. I didn’t like the script, and I was fairly shocked to find it was regarded as the “most favorite” (not to be confused with “best,” whatever that means) Black List script in 2008, but it didn’t contain the rage-inducing qualities of a Butter or a Fuckbuddies (later renamed No Strings Attached).

The story is fairly straightforward family-drama fare: Walter Black is crippled by depression, until he finds a beaver puppet in a Dumpster. He inexplicably sticks his forearm in it, and suddenly he’s transformed — the Beaver becomes a literally arm’s-length way of continuing to function while hiding from his true feelings. Walter runs a toy company unsuccessfully, but the Beaver transforms him into a dynamo, allowing the company to thrive. Walter’s wife can no longer put up with his alcoholic tailspin, but the Beaver allows him to reconnect with his family (with the exception of sullen teen son Porter). It’s all American Beauty-esque suburban malaise with a dollop of absurdism to make it seem sort of unique.

As I recall — and I’m not looking back at my original assessment in the hopes that at least some of this review will feel fresh upon dim, distant reflection — I had two major problems with The Beaver. The first was with the entire Porter subplot. Porter catalogs his father’s symptoms and obsesses over the ones he shares without doing anything to get some control over himself; later, he enters into a relationship with a female character whose name I can’t recall (“Porter” is easy to remember because it’s a terrible name), and they spew therapy lingo at each other for what feels like much more screen time than Walter Black ever gets. Granted, writer Kyle Killen hits on some heady, resonant themes with this subplot — but how compelling is it to listen to overly articulate teen nerds simply tell each other exactly what they think and feel at all times?

The second, more critical problem, is with Walter himself. He remains a cipher. Voiceover narration explains that Walter is depressed. It explains that he’s been promoted beyond his competence, that his wife has fallen out of love with him, and that he’s on the verge of suicide until he finds the puppet. Once he has the puppet on his arm, Walter becomes character of fascinating complexity — until the twist that Walter doesn’t, and never did, control the Beaver. The Beaver is sentient, using Walter’s mouth (with an English accent) to speak his own thoughts. And suddenly Walter, as a character, loses traction. Because if Walter isn’t controlling the Beaver, that means he’s still a cipher. We know a lot about what he does and how others feel about him, but we never get a sense of what makes him tick. That would be okay if the Beaver were the hero of the piece, but he ultimately turns out to be the villain, and Walter goes to great, graphic lengths to extricate himself from the Beaver’s control. But who cares about a protagonist if we’re not invested in him? Who cares about a protagonist if we spend 90 minutes thinking his chief conflict is relating to others as himself, only to discover his actual conflict is getting rid of a Beaver puppet that has grafted itself to his forearm? It’s a twist that might be effective from a story standpoint, but it is not motivated by character, and consequently it obliterates what we thought we knew about the characters in the most frustrating possible way.

I remained simultaneously intrigued and frustrated by news of the script’s development into a film. Jodie Foster’s acting career has slowed in recent years, and she hasn’t directed a film since 1995’s Home for the Holidays (which has plenty of detractors, but I like it a lot). She convinced longtime friend Mel Gibson to take the role of Walter Black; at the time of the announcement, Gibson hadn’t had a lead role in a film since Signs in 2002. He focused on directing and verbally abusing traffic cops. Rumors surfaced of an alcohol-and-depression-fueled tailspin of his own, and it seemed incredibly ballsy of him to return to cinema in such an against-type role. Personally, I think Gibson is a much more dynamic, rangey actor than many give him credit for; if anyone could bring something to Walter that wasn’t present on the page, it was him.

Instantly, the movie sounded much more compelling than the script itself, but the combination of Gibson’s extremely public personal issues and the bleakness of the film caused distribution trouble. The film was completed in 2009 and had a handful of release dates (the first I recall was January of 2010); it finally premiered at South by Southwest in March and is being slowly rolled out to theatres.

I admit, I’m still fairly intrigued. I did not like the script as written, but it had potential. Reviews I’ve read of the film point to changes that could very well be for the better; on the other hand, most of the reviewers I trust have given it a lukewarm reception at best. The A.V. Club’s Tasha Robinson gives it the backhanded compliment of “must-watch train-wreck,” but (much as I generally love her reviews) it feels more like she’s reviewing the way the film mirrors Gibson’s life than the film itself. The New Yorker’s David Denby takes issue with Foster’s direction, which he argues sucks the inherent comedy out of the absurd premise, playing it absolutely straight, like a drama. Mark Dujsik astutely writes, “For it to work, the movie relies on the conceit of blind acceptance to something that, beyond appearing ridiculous at face value, seems to have little to no effect to actually helping Walter’s condition.”

So how will The Beaver fare, at the end of the day? My guess: it’ll be better than the script, but still not nearly as good as I’d hoped once Foster and Gibson got involved. Either way, I’m waiting for the DVD.

Posted by D. B. Bates on May 6, 2011 10:20 AM