9 July 2011

At the Cinema: The Beaver

The Beaver (Jodie Foster/2011) USA/100mins. *****

Mel Gibson puts his all into The Beaver – not just his left hand. His performance is a bold move for an actor not exactly enjoying an all-time career peak right now. I’ve never fully embraced Gibson on screen or off, but some amount of kudos should be directed his way for risking an added level of professional ridicule at this current point in his career. As a toy company executive who flies off the rails in unique fashion – depressed, Gibson’s Walter Black uses the titular puppet as a therapy aid after his wife (Foster) leaves him and everything goes downhill – he just about manages to hold it together, neither knowingly winking at the audience in a I-know-this-is-dumb manner or going for fully immersive Oscar-grabbing theatrics. Even so, the film is little more than a bland, meandering drama with an upfront narrative conceit that, however initially diverting, doesn’t entirely sustain two-thirds of its running time. As with Gibson, some kudos should perhaps go to Foster, who hasn’t directed a film in fifteen years – since 1995’s generic Thanksgiving comedy Home for the Holidays – and hasn’t acted in an entirely satisfying film in well over a decade. That she decides to make a return to filmmaking with an enervating tale so out-of-sync with much of today’s cinematic offerings is both, in lucrative terms, head-slap baffling and, creatively, admirably headstrong at the same time. But one does have to wonder if, at this stage in her career, she actually really cares too much about all that.

A relatively high-profile venture, The Beaver is such an uncommercial exercise for today’s mainstream movie arena – loaded-to-bursting, as it is, with Hangover-style tomfoolery and bolshy transforming exploditrons – that Foster's (and Gibson’s – they feel like a creative duo here) film could be read as either an attempt at fuck-it-all arthouse-indie crossover posturing, in the guise of a family-centred drama, or a late yet ill-judged stab at cinematic relevance from a pair of previously high-rolling stars grasping at something already well versed, and that neither have much concept of anymore. (An issue similarly affecting Tom Hanks with his recent triple-threat mishap Larry Crowne.) The familial concerns of the narrative – is Gibson’s Walter still a decent father despite his bonkers behaviour? – feel like so much second-hand American Beauty padding (woe-consumed teens and fragile, introverted parentage) that it rarely convinces as enough content to bolster the central premise of one man’s depressive mission to justify himself. The Beaver’s oddly infantile yet uninspired tone makes it slightly less than the idea of Sesame St. meets Magic.

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