Screengrab In Exile meets The Beaver at SXSW

by Andrew Osborne

“People love a train wreck…when it’s not happening to them”

— Walter Black (Mel Gibson), The Beaver (2011)

Train wreck was the phrase in question as crowds packed into the Paramount movie palace last night for the world premiere of Jodie Foster’s latest directorial (and co-starring) effort, The Beaver.  As in:  how could a “serious” drama with a snicker-inducing title starring an allegedly psycho tabloid punchline with a puppet on his hand be anything but a fiasco?

True, the script by Kyle Killen came to Foster’s attention after landing a spot on Hollywood’s legendary “black list” of buzzworthy unproduced screenplays (with past honorees including Juno and (500) Days of Summer).  On the other hand, the Melanie Griffith bomb Milk Money was also considered a hot screenplay once by Hollywood insiders, proving buzz can sometimes be misguided.

But, of course, the real X factor of the evening was Mel. 

Because, let’s face it:  nearly everyone in the packed 1300-seat Paramount had read about and/or heard the audio clips of Gibson’s psycho anti-Semitic, racist and misogynistic tirades during a 2006 DUI arrest and in screaming matches with his former lover Oksana Grigorieva.  And, even before the infamous drunken ranting, the star had already generated plenty of controversy with 2004’s The Passion of the Christ and his condemnation by GLAAD for homophobic comments in a 1991 interview with the Spanish newspaper El País.

Taking the stage to introduce her film, even Jodie Foster seemed defensive and uncertain of the audience’s potential response.  Hidden behind dark glasses — not as part of a Jack Nicholson impression, the writer/director joked, but rather to cover up a nasty case of eye yuck — Foster stressed The Beaver was not a comedy, but rather a beautiful story that she truly loved, and one that she hoped we’d accept on its own terms.

As the lights went down, the palpable, unspoken question of the evening was:  could the audience put all of Gibson’s baggage aside and judge the film purely on its merits?  And even if we could, would the film be any good?

Well…yes and no.  And yes.  Because the truth is, The Beaver is one of those rare and fascinating amalgams like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Husbands and Wives and The Wrestler, where our knowledge of the actors’ private lives are inextricably linked to our perceptions of their on-screen performances, usually to the benefit of the films involved.

In this case, Gibson starts off with the haunted, hollow-eyed expression of a man beyond redemption.  His character, Walter Black, is the disrespected scion of a failing toy company who barely speaks or reacts in awkward boardroom meetings.  At home, things are even worse:  his oldest son (the charismatic Anton Yelchin) despises him, his cherubic youngest son (Riley Thomas Stewart) is withering from paternal neglect and his long-suffering wife (Foster, great as always) has decided to kick her shell of a husband out of the house for the sake of the children.

Walter has tried everything to snap out of his seemingly bottomless depression, all to no avail.  And so, one night — after loading up on liquor and, as a drunken afterthought, rescuing a fuzzy beaver puppet from a dumpster — he simply decides to end his suffering once and for all by hurling himself off a hotel balcony.

But then the beaver stops him.

Or, to be more specific, Walter has a psychotic break.  Talking to himself (and others) through the puppet in a tough-love Cockney accent reminiscent of the type of British gangster usually played by Ray Winstone, some fragment of Walter’s subconscious resurfaces in a desperate “Hail Mary” pass of self-preservation.

All at once, things turn around for Walter, and for a while Foster embraces the high-concept goofiness of the premise, hilariously depicting exactly the sorts of weird and awkward scenarios one might expect from a man attempting to romance his wife and jumpstart his business with a fuzzy brown puppet on his hand.

Eventually, though, we realize the humor of Walter’s seeming puppet-enhanced recovery is a Trojan Horse.  We laugh until we get used to the concept of the beaver, and then Foster pulls the rug out as the film suddenly turns darker and weirder than expected.

Because Walter hasn’t been cured.  Constantly talking through a puppet isn’t normal — nor, the film implies, are other “quick fix” escapes like self-help books, drugs or false online personas, which often slap mental Band-Aids over more serious psychological issues beneath the surface.  We all need escape valves to help us deal with the pressures of life, but Foster’s film raises intriguing questions about when and how reality should (and must) be confronted.

For all his faults, Gibson possesses undeniable talent and onscreen charisma, and the actor does a fantastic job in what’s essentially a dual role as Walter and the deceptively charming “Beaver”.  His performance, supported by a smart script and a strong cast (including, in addition to those named above, a freshly-scrubbed Jennifer Lawrence from Winter’s Bone) definitely makes this a puppet show worth checking out.

And click here for the Nerve edit of the above review and my up-close-and-personal photo of beautiful Jodie Foster at the SXSW premiere!)

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