Jodie Foster has been touring the country with her film The Beaver, prefacing each screening by imploring viewers not to expect a comedy. Rarely has a director seemed so publicly obsessed with the need to manage audience expectations, and it’s particularly remarkable coming from an artist as assured as Foster. But in The Beaver’s case, even more advance preparation seems necessary: Perhaps she should also remind people that the film was shot in 2009, before her star and longtime friend Mel Gibson had his drunken tirades recorded and released to the public, and that the film isn’t meant to respond to that scandal.
But no amount of setup is likely to dissuade audiences from seeing a little of Gibson’s life in The Beaver, in which he plays an alienated family man substituting a more confident, relatable personality for his own. And the “It’s not a comedy!” screed fits oddly with the film’s first half, which exaggerates his character’s situation for bleak belly laughs. But while The Beaver starts with Gibson in What Women Want slapstick mode, it eventually goes to such exaggerated, extreme places that it becomes as much of a must-watch train-wreck as Gibson’s own real-life situation.
Gibson stars as a suicidally depressed businessman who adopts a beaver puppet as a survival tactic. Addressing the world only through the toy (and giving people a card that says he’s “under the care of a prescription puppet”), he gets a new lease on life, but his wife (Foster) strains to accept the cost of his new happiness, while his teenage son (Anton Yelchin) rejects it outright. Essentially, The Beaver is a less-accepting, less gentle, though equally quirky version of Lars And The Real Girl, wherein a disaffected loner bootstraps himself back into society via a broad, unlikely pretense, and his friends, family, and co-workers have to decide whether they can play along. But The Beaver is more manic than Lars, and the stakes are higher and harder to buy.
Gibson’s personal life aside, he’s too broad and goofy to bring across the story’s dramatic aspects, and his affected, darkly whimsical plotline fits poorly with the more moderate B-story, involving a tentative, John Hughes-ian bonding between Yelchin and a classmate (Jennifer Lawrence) who wants him to write her valedictorian speech. There are a lot of reasons to be interested in The Beaver, for Foster fans (it’s her first directorial project since 1995’s Home For The Holidays), for train-wreck fans and culture vultures, and for people who like idiosyncratic, weird cinema. But Foster might have been better off trying to explain to viewers what The Beaver is, rather than what it isn’t. Watching it, it’s hard to believe that even she knows exactly what she was making with this strange, sprawling, tonally confused not-a-comedy.