Directed by: Jodie Foster Written by: Kyle Killen
Roger Ebert wasn’t quite impressed with The Beaver writing “”The Beaver” is almost successful, despite the premise of its screenplay.” In response to this comment I cannot help but ask, what premise is Ebert referring to? The Beaver features four main characters: a severely depressed businessman named Walter Black (Mel Gibson), Meredith his wife (Jodie Foster), his son Porter (Aton Yelchin) and Norah, the class valedictorian on whom Porter has a crush (Jennifer Lawrence). The Beaver is thus the tale of two romantic relationships, that are connected due to Porter and Walter appeared being part of a multi-generational chain of fathers raising sons who hate their fathers.
While I must admit I am not familiar with the intricacies of Roger Ebert’s tastes, something tells me it is not this premise he is referring to. Rather, it is the film’s more obvious premise: the Australian beaver puppet on Walter Black’s hand.
Ebert, it seems, is troubled by a trait that I quite enjoy in film: multi-tonality. He complains that whatever compelling seriousness is in The Beaver is ruined by the absurd premise of an adult man dealing with his depression by expressing himself through a hand puppet. In this respect, I will have to denounce Ebert’s reactionary curmudgeonness. The moments that The Beaver pushes us closest to the ends of our seat are in fact the moments when Walter takes his commitment to the puppet to the next level. Sure, we can accept that the puppet is part of his life, but is he really taking it out at work; is he really talking to it himself; is he seriously using it to have a threesome?
There is nonetheless some truth in Ebert’s reaction. The Beaver strikes me as a film that’s not sure if it wants to be indie or not. The film’s plot relies on Walter’s commitment to the beaver, and the other character’s bewilderment and frustration with it. There’s something about the degree of this bewilderment and frustration that undermines the film. It’s almost as if rather than boldly being a work with an unusual take on human psychology, The Beaver simply puts that psychology forward for the sake of it being taken apart and pulled back towards normalcy.
This problem is most apparent when one considers that The Beaver implies that Porter is at risk of following in Walter’s footsteps. While Porter has his share of self-destructive behaviors his storyline feels less inspired than Walter’s. In one scene, for example, he makes an inappropriate comment to a character about suicide. If Porter were written a little differently this could have been a defining moment for him: his problem could be that he is empathetic but is pathologically bad at expressing his empathy. His problem could also be that he has no filter. Neither of these approaches are used, however. Instead, Porter is simply a relatively ordinary, angsty-teen protagonist whose blatant expression of his feelings is used when the plot needs advancing.
So perhaps Ebert was right: The Beaver is almost successful. It makes a traditionally tough-guy actor vulnerable through his unique relationship with his puppet. Unfortunately, this is the extent of the film’s imaginative quality and this excellent premise is not played out to its full potential.