By Steve Persall
Times Film Critic
In case you haven't heard, Mel Gibson has a new movie out, with a dumb title and even dumber premise. That's three reasons to not buy a ticket to The Beaver, but I'm guessing Gibson's polarizing presence is enough for most folks. It has been, so far.
The Beaver is box office roadkill after two weeks of limited release, posting numbers making Atlas Shrugged Part I look like a blockbuster by comparison.
Without getting bogged down in statistics, just know that The Beaver quadrupled its theater count last weekend yet only doubled its ticket sales, to a measly $308,000 total. Charlie Sheen could draw as much for a couple of misbegotten live appearances. Summit Entertainment is hastily cutting its losses for the $19 million production, bumping up The Beaver's wide release by a week even though that means getting swamped by Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.
Summit now has a built-in alibi for failure: Nobody expects any movie to succeed in Capt. Jack Sparrow's wake.
That's too bad, since Gibson's performance is the interesting thing about The Beaver. Kyle Killen's chronically odd screenplay was written before Gibson's drunk driving arrest and unseemly rants. Filming was completed before Gibson faced allegations of domestic abuse. Yet The Beaver plays like a thickly veiled confessional and plea for forgiveness. It's too creepy for comfort.
Gibson plays toy manufacturer Walter Black, already in the depths of despair when the film begins. Floating clothed in his swimming pool, disconnected from work, his wife Meredith (director Jodie Foster) and children, Walter is classically, clinically depressed. A montage of Walter's attempts to right himself includes self-flagellation — The Passion of the Mel — and there's more masochistic penance to come. Intentionally or not, the disturbed character we're watching implode on screen must be the actor in real life, right?
Then things get really weird. Walter discovers a ratty hand puppet in a liquor store Dumpster, and during a booze binge this plush, toothy beaver starts talking in a Cockney accent. No ventriloquism or inner thought but Walter berating himself out loud about chances of recovery. He begins introducing his "prescription puppet" that will steer him back to sanity. Incredulously, everyone except his rebellious son Porter (Anton Yelchin) seems to agree.
It should be noted that Jim Carrey and Steve Carell were previously attached to play Walter. The Beaver would be an entirely different movie with either affable comedian. Gibson's unsavory baggage makes this dissociative behavior pitiful and self-serving. He's committed to the role — seldom does emoted pain seem so genuine — yet we can't commit to Gibson, even as an antihero.
Foster doesn't help matters by piling on heavily symbolic touches: Meredith designs roller coasters, an obvious nod to life with Walter; like the puppet he despises, Porter speaks for other people by writing term papers for cash. One of his clients is the valedictorian Norah (Jennifer Lawrence), who should be smart enough to write a speech but has her own angst. Porter becomes her emotional puppet, of sorts.
Then there's stuff so strange that Foster's movie is unintentionally hilarious: a sex montage with Meredith, Walter and the puppet in bed, the shower and back in bed; Walter in hand-to-hand puppet combat with himself, creating another chance for Gibson to play maimed, as if he hasn't been punished by The Beaver enough.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.