It seems like a marvel that 'The Beaver' actually exists. Before any of Mel Gibson's off-screen behavior even happened, the suggestion that an A-list star would willingly play opposite a hand puppet seemed more like a fake film than a legitimate premise. Then again, there was a time when the likelihood of seeing Jimmy Stewart star opposite a giant, invisible rabbit had to have seemed equally spare.
Jodie Foster's third feature as a director won't garner the same validation that a Pulitzer Prize would bring, despite a well-regarded screenplay by newcomer Kyle Killen that famously topped Hollywood's Black List of the best unproduced scripts. It's an occasionally ham-fisted story tenderly helmed by Foster and performed by her cast, and its merits will undoubtedly be overshadowed by the considerable parallels to its star's recently troublesome reputation.
Walter Black (Gibson) has hit rock bottom. He's running his family's toy company into the ground, and his 20-year marriage to Meredith (Foster) is about to follow suit. After going on a drunken bender and attempting suicide, Walter wakes up and finds himself communicating with/via a beaver puppet he had salvaged from a dumpster the night before. The whole family, including oldest child Porter (Anton Yelchin), try to take this unconventional form of therapy in stride, but how long must they wait for Walter to fully recover from his depression? Is that even possible?
When combined with Marcelo Zarvos' fanciful score, the tone of the film's first hour is generally flippant as Walter re-integrates into the family unit and re-invigorates his business strategy (with a new beaver-based toy, naturally). He operates strictly through his newfound avatar, and Gibson brings him to life with a Cockney-by-way-of-Australia voice and surprisingly emotive hand movements. (As it turns out, the beaver is just as prone to post-coital breathlessness as the actual lovers.)
However, the cumulative effect of all this comedy is that it's hard to feel invested once the bottom falls out again. It's not for lack of trying on our lead's part; Gibson nails the despondency and weariness of life as a deeply depressed individual, and he manages to give that furry little defense mechanism a life and personality all its own. Foster is understandably saddened by, then skeptical of, her husband's behavior pre- and post-puppet, their youngest son (Riley Thomas Stewart) just adores the furry friend with the funny voice, and Yelchin's character already wanted nothing to do with Dad even before this development cropped up.
But Yelchin's character has his own story, which has its own problems. He's been writing other kids' papers on the sly, and valedictorian Norah (Jennifer Lawrence) has just asked him to write her graduation speech. Naturally, the outsider realizes that he has more in common with the all-A's cheerleader than meets the eye, but while both actors play nicely off one another -- not too quick, not too quirky so far as on-screen high schoolers go -- the way that Porter comes to provoke her into honesty is clumsy at best, and the running metaphor of seeing him punch an actual hole into his family's house with his frustrations, not unlike dear old Dad, is a tad on-the-nose.
Perhaps Porter is better seen as a substitute for the screenwriter, putting his words into the mouths of others for a price. Killen's tonal shift seems inevitable, but he leaves it to Foster as a director to keep the audience with it, and while she certainly elicits sensitive performances from her actors, the oversimplified psychology of the proceedings and the overall mood established by the music and occasional narration transform the end result from being a suitable dramedy in the vein of 'Lars and the Real Girl' or 'Harvey' into more of an awkward fusion between a '70s farce of success and a '50s domestic melodrama.
'The Beaver' is a movie with problems about a man with problems, often filled with compassion and at times devoid of subtlety. In all fairness, it would've been tricky for even the most skilled director to pull off, and none of its flaws can be chocked up to anything that Gibson has done or said in real life. He gives remarkable life to a man, and a film, in crisis, and with a little luck, the topic of conversation will adjust accordingly to how effective he is in a regrettably ineffectual film.