Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Beaver ***½

Director: Jodie Foster
Cast: Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, Anton Yelchin, Jennifer Lawrence
Riley Thomas Stewart, Cherry Jones, Zachary Booth

Is an artist his own art? In recent times it's become practically impossible to analyze an artistic work without connecting it to the private life of its creator. Ever since the media became obsessed with covering aspects of artists' lives outside their medium of work, audiences have developed strange relationships with them, that in a way makes them believe that a bond exists between them.
However the truth is, that despite Hollywood's greatest efforts to prove us wrong, movie stars have never been like the rest of us. They were made to exist in a different level and as much as we're told that they're just another regular Joe, in reality they are people with whom we may never cross paths. This need to identify with them however should be restricted, or perhaps encouraged, only in those stars who also exude talent.
When said movie star is also talented, we learn to empathize with them, not through their love of mansions, sports cars and super models, but because of the humanity they infuse into their characters. Should a movie star then, be forgiven for his "sins" when they commit themselves to a deeply touching performance?
For starters, who gave the audience the authority to become a moral judge and do movie stars even need to be ethical beacons of decency? Why has separating the public from the artistic become such a difficult task?
Of course on several occasions, film personalities have used the medium to exorcise their public demons (or is it their demons in public?) and we have seen works of art like On the Waterfront arrive in the shape of what looked like an apology, or a justification for previous sins committed.
As usual, this need to separate the two aspects of a performer and to judge them accordingly is left best to each individual, but rarely has this reflection been as crucial to a product and its maker as it is in The Beaver.
After a long battle with alcoholism, outbursts of antisemitism and even domestic violence, Gibson is back with his first "serious" role in quite some time. Appealing to those who think of him, not as a movie star, but as an actor, Gibson plays Walter Black, the depressed CEO of a toy company who one day decides he has had enough.
His wife Meredith (Foster) has kicked him out of the house where she stays with their children Porter and Henry (Yelchin and Stewart), so Walter chooses to go by way of necktie hanging. Moments before, he had found a puppet in the form of a beaver, which he places on his hand. Walter attempts suicide only to wake up realizing that not only is he, well, still alive, but that the beaver has taken over him and is talking to him in a Cockney-by-way-of-Michael Caine accent. The beaver, who works as a therapist of sorts, helps Walter regain control of his life and soon he establishes that he will only address others through his beaver.
Those closer to him put up with his "talk to the hand" policy because they think it's healing him, although his son Porter begins to distance himself from his dad even more and then Walter begins to thrive in business as well (Jones plays VP to his CEO).
After a while though, like any medication, the beaver becomes a nuisance and Walter is in danger of fully losing his identity to a puppet.
As Harvey redux as the movie might sound, the truth is that The Beaver can be filtered through an array of different readings, most of which go beyond facile analysis of suburban farce and character through mental disease dissection.
For starters it becomes impossible to ignore the fact that in a completely meta way, The Beaver acts as Mel Gibson's own beaver. Is he trying to explain his irrational behavior through a movie where a character explains his irrational behavior through a character?
If so it would make sense that it was a commissioned screenplay right? However Kyle Killen's script had been making the rounds in Hollywood for years with nobody knowing exactly how to pull it off. Given to Foster, who is a truly accomplished director, the story is suddenly infused with tenderness, urgency and best of all: a lack of irony.
Foster excels at delivering a movie full of gimmicks that effortlessly overcomes them and feels like a modern take on Frank Capra. That she uses her friend Gibson is extraordinary because she brings out perhaps the greatest performance of his career. One that's both moving and scary to watch. Gibson fearlessly dives into insanity but often achieves sublime tiny moments where all you want to do is hug his character.
As Walter descends into madness, you might find yourself snickering more and more at how this character's path resembles the one of the actor playing him and the film can be studied as a postmodernist take on the public apology.
Is Gibson trying to defend his behavior and throwing out a public cry for help or is he merely trying to seduce us all over with his charm and inarguable talent?
One of The Beaver's most conflicting scenes has Walter being interviewed by Matt Lauer and here audiences have to decide whether they are watching Gibson or Walter, the effect of the movie depends on this, it's as simple as that.
On the other side, and perhaps much more interesting from an academic level, we have an exploration of gender, sexuality and their deep connection to words. We won't pretend that the film's title doesn't strike a funny bone from a childish, vulgar point of view. Especially when the film's title animal can also be used to make jokes about the director's private life (again, both angles can be linked).
What exactly made a beaver more appealing to the writer, than say, a dog or a mouse? As with everything in a movie, even if "subconsciously" done, there are no coincidences and the beaver becomes an embodiment of a feminine side which Walter needs to connect to in order to evolve.
Perhaps from a queer theory point of view, the beaver that takes over Walter is an expression of his deep desire to be someone he isn't. The movie never really hints at bisexuality or homosexuality but it makes it clear for us that Walter is leading an unhappy life that only this tiny furry thing can help. Using his hand in drag gives Walter a freedom he never thought he could achieve.
The inner struggles with masculinity are also expressed through Walter's relationship with Porter. Throughout the movie we see Porter keep a list of the reasons why he does not want to become his dad and the things that are taking him there so far.
What can make Porter so unsure about admiring his dad other than having him represent a facet of being a man, that he doesn't agree with? What son wants his father to have a beaver?
Porter is given a romantic interest in the shape of the always haunting Jennifer Lawrence (perhaps to reassure us of his heterosexual points of view) and while the film tries to give their subplot more importance, the center of the film is always the relationship between father and son.
Kudos to Foster for being capable of removing herself from the main themes and exploring the notions of masculinity with such delicacy. As the breach between father and son becomes wider, Foster suddenly makes a heartbreaking statement and shows us that sometimes the only way for different perspectives to come together is through a symbolic castration.
In the case of The Beaver it must be seen to be believed, especially because you never expect a whimsical movie about the suburbs to explore the issues of "being a 'man'" with such liberated honesty.


CS said...

Interesting, this film has not received stellar reviews at all. I find Foster can be hit or miss as a director. Still, your review has me curious to check it out now.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating review!


Jose said...

CS: glad I got you at least interested in it, I feel it was treated badly by the press in our continent.

CR: glad you enjoyed it, pops!