Not so ea­ger about The Beaver. Don­ald Clarke re­view,

Mel is ren­dered drab in this con­ven­tional drama, writes Don­ald Clarke

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Front Page -

WHEN JODIE FOS­TER cast Mel Gib­son in this bizarrely mis­con­ceived fam­ily drama the ac­tor had not yet been pro­pelled to the outer re­gions of Hol­ly­wood’s cir­cle of in­famy. Re­cently snapped fling­ing kit­tens at rab­bis (or what­ever it was that week), he still seemed ripe for full-scale re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion.

In the in­terim, fol­low­ing se­cre­tively recorded racist di­a­tribes and a con­vic­tion for do­mes­tic vi­o­lence, Mel has taken on the qual­ity of a celebrity un­touch­able. No won­der the film’s re­lease has been so con­spic­u­ously de­layed.

The fact that he is play­ing a man go­ing through a se­vere midlife cri­sis only makes The Beaver seem that bit more suspect. Is the film seek­ing to ex­plain Gib­son’s melt­down? Well, plenty of folk pass 50 with­out turn­ing to recre­ational anti-Semitism and ca­sual yob­bery. Noth­ing here is go­ing to win him

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any new friends.

To be fair, Fos­ter – a sen­si­ble soul – al­most cer­tainly has no such in­ten­tion. The script for The Beaver had been cir­cu­lat­ing Hol­ly­wood for years. She hoped, one as­sumes, that mem­o­ries of Mel’s psy­cho­log­i­cal ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties would help the char­ac­ter’s own de­cline seem that bit more be­liev­able. Such is in­deed the case. His eyes slightly hooded, his de­liv­ery con­stantly un­sta­ble, Gib­son does a very con­vinc­ing im­per­son­ation of a Premier League lu­natic. Sadly, the film it­self is duller than a wet af­ter­noon at an un­der-stocked jum­ble sale.

It shouldn’t have been that way. As read­ers will al­most cer­tainly be aware, Kyle Killen’s script works from a promis­ingly pe­cu­liar premise. Gib­son plays a trou­bled fel­low named Wal­ter Black. Chief ex­ec­u­tive of a toy com­pany, pa­ter fa­mil­ias to a mildly dys­func­tional brood, the in­creas­ingly with­drawn Wal­ter has pushed his wife (a weepy Fos­ter) to break­ing point and be­yond. Banned from the fam­ily home, he at­tempts sui­cide and, af­ter fail­ing com­i­cally, he comes across a scruffy glove pup­pet in a dump­ster. For no good rea­son, he places the tit­u­lar beaver on his fist and be­gins talk­ing in an as­ton­ish­ingly bad cock­ney ac­cent. Sud­denly, Wal­ter feels him­self re­con­nect­ing with the real world. He makes out a note – dis­hon­estly claim­ing the beast has been med­i­cally pre­scribed – in­struct­ing friends and fam­ily to talk through (and only through) his new friend.

Mean­while, in­vok­ing one of sev­eral clumsy par­al­lels, Porter (An­ton Yelchin), his teenage son, has be­come in­volved in his own act of ven­tril­o­quism. The boy has taken to writ­ing es­says for lazier school­mates. Things look up when the pret­ti­est girl in school – holder of one of those mys­te­ri­ous hon­orifics Amer­i­can high schools scat­ter freely – hires him to fash­ion a speech for the grad­u­a­tion cer­e­mony.

The Beaver re­ceives mixed re­views from the fam­ily. Wal­ter’s young daugh­ter warms to the beast. Mrs Black is sus­pi­cious at first, but, af­ter ob­serv­ing Wal­ter’s soft­en­ing tem­per, slowly comes round to the ar­range­ment. Porter re­gards the scheme as more ev­i­dence of his fa­ther’s self­ish­ness and self-in­dul­gence.

It is said that Killen orig­i­nally imag­ined his hero would be­come ob­sessed with a nov­elty turd. Now, that might have been prop­erly weird. As things have worked out, we have ended up with a dead­en­ingly con­ven­tional do­mes­tic drama – Amer­i­can Beauty di­luted by litres of schmaltz – that just hap­pens to have a talk­ing beaver at its heart. Once the ini­tial nov­elty wears off, it be­comes very hard to care that Mel is de­liv­er­ing his lines via a ny­lon ro­dent. Noth­ing else about the film is in any way odd or ex­per­i­men­tal. Even the sex scene seems un­sat­is­fac­to­rily queasy.

Imag­ine a worka­day west­ern in which the hero wears Mickey Mouse ears through­out. Con­sider a rou­tine space opera fea­tur­ing a hero who de­liv­ers all his lines as risqué lim­er­icks. Such is the ex­tent of the film’s brav­ery and dar­ing.

It’s not even as if the cen­tral con­ceit has been prop­erly thought through. Is the Beaver an­other man­i­fes­ta­tion of Wal­ter’s mad­ness or a sign that he un­der­stands the roots of the ill­ness?

You will search in vain for the an­swer. Rarely has a sup­pos­edly strange film seemed quite so drably con­ven­tional. The Mel re­vival is still on hold. THE TI­TLE nods to­wards Bad Santa and the film’s premise is un­de­ni­ably sim­i­lar. Once again, a fig­ure of trust is por­trayed as a drunken, ir­re­spon­si­ble layabout. The pro­tag­o­nist is the very last per­son you would trust with your youngest and dear­est.

Un­for­tu­nately, Jake Kas­dan’s film does not quite have the courage of its con­vic­tions. Cameron Diaz is con­vinc­ingly dis­so­lute as the ti­tle char­ac­ter. No­body is bet­ter suited to top­pling off the high­est heels into the deep­est vat of malt liquor. But, from her open­ing burps, you just know she’s even­tu­ally go­ing to soften and do some­thing like the right thing.

To that point, there is much to en­joy. Diaz plays a hard-liv­ing gold dig­ger who, af­ter be­ing dumped by her mil­lion­aire fi­ance, re­turns to teach­ing as a way of fi­nanc­ing a boob job. She rips off the kids’ char­ity car­wash. She smokes dope in the park­ing lot. Even­tu­ally, our naughty hero­ine learns that a sub­stan­tial cash prize is awarded to the class that scores the high­est marks in a state test. Ini­tially, she opts for in­tense tu­tor­ing. Then she de­cides to cheat.

You cer­tainly couldn’t ar­gue that the film of­fers a pos­i­tive por­trayal of women in the work place. Cameron’s main ri­val (tal­ented Brit Lucy Punch), a hard-work­ing zealot, is as in­fu­ri­at­ingly smug as the pro­tag­o­nist is mind­lessly dis­so­lute. But the pic­ture is – in the­ory at least – a cel­e­bra­tion of poor be­hav­iour and Diaz’s game en­thu­si­asm is some­thing to be­hold.

Though the end­ing is a bit tepid, the film does, ul­ti­mately, have its heart in the right (that’s to say wrong) place. All the good-think­ing, Chris­tian char­ac­ters – no­tably an amus­ing Justin Tim­ber­lake – spew te­dium and con­de­scen­sion from ev­ery pore. If you seek pro­pa­ganda in favour of dis­so­lute liv­ing then look no fur­ther.

Will Mel need the tux for next year’s Os­cars? Un­likely

DON­ALD CLARKE

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