Review: 'The Beaver'

(Two-and-a-half stars)

What to do when you're hopelessly depressed? In the new Jodie Foster-helmed dramedy "The Beaver," Walter Black tries self-help books, therapy, drum circles, medication and self-medication, but nothing works until he hits bottom and embraces the new personality a hand puppet affords him.

That Walter is played by that king of public meltdowns Mel Gibson unavoidably colors "The Beaver." "Edge of Darkness" is practically Gibson's middle name (also the title of his return to acting last year), established on screen with roles as varied as the "Lethal Weapon" franchise's Martin Riggs and the title role in "Hamlet." In "The Beaver," a convincing Gibson again stares deeply into the abyss. The question is whether -- after his public disgrace -- anyone will want to go there with him.

Walter has nearly driven his father's toy company out of business; he's alienated his family to the brink of separation; and he nearly ends it all during a hotel-room bender.

But Walter makes a comeback with his found furry friend, a beaver that he introduces to his wife Meredith (Foster) as "a prescription puppet." The beaver inexplicably speaks in a Cockney accent, and quickly becomes a hit with the Blacks' 7-year-old son, Henry (Riley Thomas Stewart).

Henry's older brother, Porter (Anton Yelchin), and Meredith don't come around quite so quickly, but the Beaver ultimately helps Walter to ingratiate himself both at home and at work. At the toy company, he rediscovers his creativity by letting the beaver operate outside of the shadow of Walter's father, who committed suicide. The pressure to live up to -- and, more often, avoid -- a father's legacy haunts both Walter and Porter, a ne'er-do-well whose principal goal in life is to avoid becoming Walter.

"The Beaver" proves to be not very interested in black comedy. Rather, it's a drama of depression, with the plain-spoken message "You do not have to be alone" in facing life's loss and hurt and brokenness. It's a message the audience will hope that Walter and Porter -- as well as Porter's new friend and love interest, Norah (Jennifer Lawrence of "Winter's Bone") -- will hear before picture's end. That is, if audiences can be convinced to feel sympathy for a man played by Mel Gibson.

In Foster's hands, "The Beaver" turns out to be a bit of a head-scratcher: weird and disturbing, but with elements of cuteness and romance; darkly funny but comedically gun shy; admirably serious-minded in treating the subject of depression, in spite of the Cockney beaver on Gibson's arm. One wishes the film's bets didn't feel quite so hedged, but as is, it's a quirky and diverting domestic drama. After all, the producers can cross their fingers that what the beaver says is true: "People seem to love a train wreck when it's not happening to them."

Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material, some disturbing content, sexuality and language including a drug reference. 1 hour, 31 minutes.

— Peter Canavese

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