The Beaver

Mel Gibson and Jodie Foster star in a canny but half-finished tale of a man
coaxed out of depression with the help of a talking handpuppet.
TALK TO THE HAND PUPPET2: Mel Gibson uses a go-between to communicate with Jodie Foster in 'The Beaver'. Photograph by Ken Regan

DESPITE what I am about to outline, The Beaver would be a hard film to parody. It is aware of itself and asks the logical questions. Mel Gibson plays Walter Black, the president of and heir to a successful toy company. Severely depressed, Black is on the brink of suicide when he is rescued by a beaver hand puppet he finds among his possessions. The fuzzy puppet, which Black speaks for, orders him around like a drill sergeant.

Black is back in the game; he brandishes a card explaining that this "prescription puppet" helps him with a medical condition. His younger son is delighted. His older son, Porter (Anton Yelchin), was already so overwhelmed with contempt for his father's weakness that this new shtick is the last straw. Walter's wife, Meredith (Jodie Foster), remains neutral. At first, she is happy that Walter has come out of his dummied-up shell; later, she has misgivings.

Gibson is at home with this kind of manic-depressive acting, but why does this fable have such visual blandness? It was filmed in New York's Westchester County—an aqua blur of such visual shallowness that the actors might as well be standing in front of a furniture warehouse billboard. As an actress, Foster is both faultless and handsome: she sidesteps the trap of being the bitch in the story who won't learn to love the fluffy puppet. Tony Gardner designed the little creature with human eyes, complete with whites, and an oversized maw. The puppet is not cute, and it's not scary. It is as neutral as a psychiatrist's grunt.

The search for a third act takes the film into the terrain of the bad ventriloquist's dummy picture. As a director, Foster has no taste for horror, even if the puppet signals its bad side right away, "I'm the only one who knows what you feel"—a line to beware when it comes from people, let alone from terry cloth beavers. The Beaver insists, and wraps with, the idea that there are families that "you could put on a holiday card"; like talking beavers, there's really no such animal, and the feel-good ending looks bizarre in a movie with such macabre implications.

The Beaver

PG-13; 91 min.

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