Not so eager about The Beaver. Donald Clarke review,
Mel is rendered drab in this conventional drama, writes Donald Clarke
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
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 Chief executive of a toy company, pater familias to a mildly dysfunctional brood, the increasingly withdrawn Walter has pushed his wife (a weepy Foster) to breaking point and beyond.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