"Ignoring the 800 Pound Gorilla in the Room"
"Uh-uh, Honey. Talk to the Hand"
Jodie Foster's new film, The Beaver, was always going to have an uphill battle finding an audience when it was released. First, it's about mental illness, but atypically for Hollywood, it's not a comedy. Second, it stars Mel Gibson (in a good...actually heroic...performance), so any review is going to feel obligated to slide in some mention of the "800 pound gorilla in the room."* Both detract from the film itself which has a difficult enough time staying focused on its issues, but at least has enough moxie to try and do something a little different—without tugging too hard on the obvious heart-strings.
Gibson plays Walter Black, an executive of the Jerry Co. toy company, who, following The Peter Principle, was given the CEO position that he wasn't really qualified for, over a female executive (the always wonderful Cherry Jones). He runs Jerry Co. into a few quarters of red-ink lethargy (although the brick-and-mortar doesn't come tumbling down) and has a complete mental breakdown...slowwwwly. Not wanting to get out of bed in the morning, reduced to monosyllabic answers and avoiding any interaction, Walter is so clinically depressed that, finding a ragged beaver puppet in a dumpster, he starts using it as a surrogate to speak through and at. Walter goes away. And everybody has to address "The Beaver" (who talks in a gruff Cockney, sounding a bit like Gibson's co-star in Edge of Darkness, Ray Winstone). The situation is explained to new recruits with an intro card:
"Hello, the person who handed you this card is under the care of a prescription puppet designed to help create a psychological distance between himself and the negative aspects of his personality. Please treat him as you normally would but address yourself to the puppet.
Thank YOU. The thing is, "The Beaver's" not a better person than Walter, he's just chirpy and aggressive. Walter can go away and "hide" in his limbowhile "The Beaver" does all the P.R. work, chortling and being cute, while Walter fails to commit. Walter thinks that Beaver is a tourniquet on his arm, staunching the bleeding, but all he's applied is a band-aid...cover up the problem until it goes away. "The Beaver" is the "manic" while Walter remains the "depressive" and the puppet is just another room where he can hide, pouring all his effort into the surrogate, while ignoring the real problem.
Sidebar: Let's talk about depression. Full disclosure—I have suffered from depression in the past, but, just like fools, I don't "suffer" it now.** The instinct is to run away and hide and do nothing, lest you fail and make things worse. But, action is the best cure for it—to ac-cent-u-ate the positive and e-li-mi-nate the negative. It's "better than nothing," which is what depression inspires...a lonely, isolating cage of nothing. It's always better "to be" than "not to be."
But, that's hard to convey in a movie (and be entertaining about it, anyway). "The Beaver" has a brother-in-mind from movies-past, and that would be Harvey. For all its twee charm, great lines and James Stewart whimsey, Harvey is a film about mental illness—Elwood P. Dowd has suffered a breakdown from the death of his wife and has replaced her companionship with a "pooka" taking the form of a six-foot-three-and-half-inch ('lets get the facts right") juicer of a rabbit. The conceit of the play is to say that we're all crazy..."After this he'll be a perfectly normal human being. And you know what stinkers they are!"...and reassures us through stage-craft that we're just as nuts when we see doors opening and closing by themselves, indicating Harvey's presence. The charm of it, played for comedy, disguises the pain at the heart and soul of the play; I once saw a performance of it at the Seattle Repertory Theater where Dowd (Elwood P.) was a melancholic, sad, mournful, and that version of the play has always stuck with me, despite the weird shift in tone.
The Beaver (the film) has that same problem of tone. There are moments of lightness...more irony than humor***...but, ultimately, it's a sad affair, however ludicrous and "wacky" it might seem in the overview. And, Black's conflicts with his family, particularly his son (Anton Yelchin), who views his father's condition with contempt and fear...that he might go down the same path. He's a student who charges a fee to write papers for less-gifted class-mates because he has a knack for writing "in other people's voices," and his efforts writing a valedictory speech for a school hottie (Jennifer Lawrence—she's terrific, and a tough little actor) makes up a parallel story to his father's struggles. Foster plays Black's wife, and the best thing she brings to the role is a tentative panic behind the eyes in trying to keep her family together.
Gibson's eyes, however, haunt. They perfectly convey the radiating hurt (without overdoing it by going into mawkishness)...and the consuming deadness as he retreats. This is some of his best work in years, especially considering he's having to play two characters at once, the puppet and the puppet-master, while simultaneously keeping it unclear which is which. Foster, as director, maintains a discrete presence, but has one big pay-off by ommission; by filming Black and his symbiot constantly in two-shot, she maximizes the dread one feels when "The Beaver" is alone in the frame—quite the directorial coup, actually. That conflict builds as the story goes along, cautioning that if you're going to have a surrogate speaking for you, choose one with less prominent teeth.
This is good, disturbing stuff. And an interesting approach by all concerned to a nicely buttoned-up screenplay that dots the "i's" (without putting little smiley faces on them) and double-crosses the tease, and dares to question the idea of "self" and losing it. Some might find it depressing.
But it made me smile.
The Beaver is a Matinee.
* If you wanna know about it (or if you've been living under a rock for the last few months), just "Google" Mel Gibson." I'm sure you'll find out what's going on quickly.
** Yeah, yeah, I know. "TMI." But, hey, I write, I analyze. It's what I do. It's why I'm here—on more than one occasion I've been told "Couldn't you just ENJOY the movie for what it is?" Some other Yojimbo can do that. It's not me. I'm critical with movies as I'm critical with myself—I aspire to something more in what I do and I expect it of anybody who sticks their neck out onto the creative chopping block. It's common among writers, actors...and, I am sure, puppeteers and ventriloquists, whom I've been fascinated with since I was a kid. All take on other persona's in their craft—something the movie makes clear—and more than a little analysis—self- and otherwise—goes into that. I wouldn't have it any other way.
*** I can only think, with horror, what this would have been like if, as was once the case, Jim Carrey or Steve Carell had played it, instead of Gibson, who looked the situation square in the eye and played it for truth, rather than laughs.