Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Don't leave it to "The Beaver"

First things first: Mel Gibson delivers a brilliant performance in The Beaver, Jodie Foster's movie about a man's breakup and redemption. It may well have been his best performance since Gallipoli, and were it not for his current state of disgrace, there would surely be an Oscar nomination in his future. Perhaps even that won't be enough to keep him from a nomination, since there are few things Hollywood likes more than a good comeback story; but I still think it's a longshot. Nonetheless, his portrait of a tortured man hanging on to sanity, filled with loathing for others and himself, had to have given us an insight into the man that one seldom gets from an actor. He wasn't playing a role so much as he was using his own experience to interpret the role. If his own life is anything like this (and I think it is), I have the greatest compassion for him.

There was also a lot to like from the script, which led us down one road, toward the seemingly inevitable feel-good conclusion, and then took us in a completely different direction. Hitchcock, who was a master at mixing light humor with dark terror, often showed us that the most effective horror comes from the inoccuous - and what could be more inoccuous than a motley beaver hand-puppet?

Indeed, as The Beaver opens, we are presented with the portrait of a man - Walter Black - on the verge of self-destruction. He is deeply depressed (although, unless I missed it, we are never told exactly if there was a single episode that tipped him over the edge, only that depression appears to run in the family), unable to find help from any form of treatment (amusingly shown in a montage with voiceover), and his wife (Jodie Foster) has packed up their two kids and left him. Alone and drunk, on the verge of suicide, he discovers the puppet - who, the next thing he knows, has taken over his therapy. And wouldn't you know, the Beaver seems to be the only one who can actually penetrate the fog and reach Black where it counts. (One might wonder if the fact that Gibson voices the Beaver with no attempt at ventriloquism is meant to suggest that the answers have been inside him all the time, blocked by a lack of self-confidence, but the script misses the opportunity to go there. Not the only opportunity it misses.)

So far, so good. Black returns to his family a new man, charming younger son Henry (Riley Thomas Stewart) and giving his wife a cautious optimism. Only older son Porter (Anton Yelchin) remains antagonistic - but Porter has his own problems,* and it's clear that he's already well along on the same road to mental illness that his father and grandfather have already trod. Perhaps we're supposed to feel some sympathy for Porter, but I didn't - I kept thinking someone should have sat down with him a long time ago and laid down the line.

*Starting perhaps with his name? A wimpy name like Porter is perhaps the strongest evidence of how disengaged Walter must have been in this marriage.

And here we start to get into the greatest problem with The Beaver: Jodie Foster herself. Foster has shown some skill in past as a director, and her two Academy Awards are testimony to her talent, but in this role she's completely out of her element. Foster's Meredith is far too much a co-dependent, unable to reach either her husband or her two children, who desperately need parenting and aren't getting it. Foster's great strength as an actress is just that: her strength. And a weak character like this is not for her, not at all. It would not be hard to understand how Walter could come to feel that only the Beaver cares for him; I could not imagine that Meredith ever could have given Walter what he needed. Foster can, and should, play a stronger character - but more about this shortly.

I don't generally like to give away the ending of a movie, but in this case I feel I have to in order to prove my point. [PLOT SPOILERS AHEAD] Near the end, we find out that the Beaver has taken over Walter, convincing him that only he has Walter's best interests at heart, that his family has betrayed him, that everyone else has betrayed him, that he must listen only to the Beaver. (A point of view for which I had some sympathy, by the way.) We now see that Walter, in addition to being depressed, might also be schitzophrenic.* He no longer has control over the Beaver, who now controls him.

*A bit which Anthony Hopkins, Foster's Silence of the Lambs mate, did much better in a much better movie, Magic.

When Walter, sensing this, tries to call Meredith on the phone, the Beaver forces him to hang up, and proceeds to beat Walter up (in a scene that's much more horrifying and less silly than it sounds). Now, we're presented the opportunity for Foster to shine, perhaps directly confronting the Beaver (something she has been loathe to do, always talking to Walter instead), willing to do anything to save the man she loves, even if it puts her own life in danger. 

But no. The plot drums up the lame excuse that Meredith has to stay with an ill younger son, and sends the older son to check on his father. To his horror, Porter discovers that Walter, realizing that he must escape the Beaver in order to survive, has cut his own arm off to rid himself of the puppet.

This was the point at which the film finally lost me. And this is the reason why The Beaver ultimately fails.

In her best roles, I've always thought Jodie Foster had something of Barbara Stanwyck in her. Stanwyck was a tough broad (and I say that with admiration), who didn't take anything from anyone. As the heavy, she could put the fear of God into you; as the heroine, you knew she'd fight to the death for what was right I(and thank your lucky stars that she was on your side). Now, imagine Stanwyck in this role, going to Walter and confronting the Beaver, treating it as if it were alive (as, in a way, it is), screaming "Give me back my husband, damn you!" She wouldn't have been afraid to fight the Beaver, and Walter too, if that were needed. And my money would have been on her. It would have been a ferocious, terrifying scene. And it would have guaranteed Stanwyck an Oscar nomination.

Foster, I think, could have pulled this scene off. Maybe this sudden toughness would have seemed too much out of character. Perhaps, given Gibson's personal history of confrontational relationships, there was some discomfort about the possibility of a physical confrontation between Foster and the puppet, which surely would have meant Foster vs. Gibson. Maybe she and the writer thought such a confrontation smacked too much of a stereotypical thrillier, ala Fatal Attraction. On the other hand, maybe they should have tried doing a drama cum thriller, rather than a comedy-drama.

Alas, we're only allowed to review the movie at hand, not the movie as it might (should?) have been. And that's why The Beaver winds up a failure: a noble one, perhaps, an ambitious one, full of promise (I haven't even mentioned the excellent performance of Jennifer Lawrence as Porter's girlfriend, who shines in a somewhat tortured subplot). But a failure nonetheless. It's best not even to discuss the film's end, which is either a too-pat happily-ever-after finish, or a hopefull, this-is-the-ending-that-might-be that was executed with too much subtlety.

In the last analysis, Jodie Foster the director was let down by Kyle Killen, the writer, and - perhaps more importantly - by Jodie Foster, the actress. For when Mel Gibson, whose strength has always been in action movies, shines as the most sensitive actor in your drama, you know you're in trouble. 
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