'The Beaver' Is A Tonal Mess [SXSW Review]

Remember The Beaver? First-time writer Kyle Killen's spec screenplay created all sorts of buzz around Hollywood, ended up on the 2008 Black List (a list of the hottest unproduced screenplays of the year), and gained the interest of Steve Carell and director Jay Roach. A lot of people, including former /Film writer Brendon Connelly called the screenplay "one of the few very best screenplays" he had "ever read."

Roach and Carell left the project, and Jodie Foster (who directed Little Man Tate and Home for the Holidays) came aboard to helm the project with Mel Gibson in the leading role. Gibson's problems in his personal life have caused this film to sit on the shelf, while Foster has tried to fine tune the film's tone, and Summit Entertainment brainstorms ways to market a movie starring an actor who has made anti-Semitic and racist remarks. But the studio has been quietly positioning the film to be Gibson's comeback project.

Gibson plays Walter, a troubled father, husband and CEO of a stalling toy company, who finds a hand puppet named The Beaver, which he begins to wear everywhere and starts to use for all of his communication, in both his home life and at work. Walter's wife (played by Foster) has kicked him out of the house. His older son (played by Anton Yelchin) wants nothing to do with him and is systematically trying to rid himself of any similarities to his embarrassing father.

And there is a subplot which involves Yelchin's character is hired to write a graduation speech for the school's valedictorian, a beautiful smart but possibly secretly-troubled teenager named Norah (played by Oscar-nominated actress Jennifer Lawrence). This subplot is beyond predictable — you can probably figure out all of the beats without knowing much more than my short set-up synopsis.

It may surprise some of you to learn that the story is more of a drama than a comedy. As you might expect, there are comedic moments that come from the puppet's inclusion in various situations. But the story aims more for drama than comedy. The Beaver is too ridiculous to be taken seriously, and too melodramatic to be funny. Foster wrestles to capture the right tones, but the shifts are messy from scene to scene, and it never seems to find the right fit.

I want to admire the creativity at play in the dark storyline, but none of the characters are particularly relatable, which made it hard from me to invest in the story/outcome.

The core problem is that the entire film hinges on the audience to buy into the ridiculous premise: that a mentally troubled individual adopts a puppet as his method of communication to the world. And not only that, but that the puppet acts as a third person, and that Gibson is sometimes unable to control what he does/says. (possible spoiler invisotext — highlight to reveal) If a grown man having a serious bar-room type brawl with a puppet on his arm sounds ridiculous, that's because it is. (end invisotext)

Gibson gives it his best, and delivers a great performance — but it just isn't enough to get me to care about the character's well being or even believe the concept as a whole. And if you have any troubles buying into the premise, this film can't work.