We all know that actors, directors and Hollywood writers put parts of themselves into their films, but a movie hasn’t held a mirror up to life like this since Mickey Rourke made an emotional comeback from the showbiz wilderness in The Wrestler.
Shamelessly manipulative and almost pleading for sympathy, Mel Gibson’s first project since answer-machinegate is the cinematic version of the new car Ryan Giggs probably bought his wife recently. I’ve no doubt that many have been waiting for months to rip it to pieces, but The Beaver is actually quite good. Themes of mental illness, loss, love and hope are dealt with in an elementary fashion, but between them, Jodie Foster and the fractured friend she stood by when few others would, have carved a warm story with genuine heart. How far it will go towards bringing Gibson in from the cold is another matter entirely, but this is a fine comeback performance that certainly connects.
The much-maligned star plays Walter Black, a similarly fated father, husband and toy company mogul who has spiralled into depression, lost the respect of those around him and finally been kicked out by his long-suffering wife. If the Foster who plays Mrs Black dragged her heels while showing her fella the door, then Foster the director doesn’t waste much time explaining the process, and after a couple of scenes Gibson finds himself considering the balcony of his modest hotel room with a shower curtain (the remnants of his first suicide bid) tied around his neck. Yet in his drunken stupor he begins chatting to himself through the beaver puppet he plucked from a supermarket dumpster, falls back from the edge and suffers a very What Women Want moment with a falling television.
On this occasion, rather than being blessed with a invincible pulling technique, Gibson has managed to turn his furry friend into a “barrier between himself and the negative aspects of his personality”. The Beaver talks to – but most of all for – a miraculously rejuvenated Walter with an amusing Road Warrior lilt. In a flash his confidence comes flooding back and with the help of his new guardian angel he starts to piece his life back together.
Winning over his youngest child is a push-over and he manages it with a spot of carpentry (“he’s a beaver mum!”) But as is usually the way for wayward movie fathers, his teenage son is a much tougher crowd. Like many other parts of The Beaver, young Porter Black is etched in a rudimentary fashion, but there are many parts of him that have been skilfully observed. His hit-list of behavioural similarities which connect him to his old man might strike a chord with many of us and he is the only character in the film who reacts to his dad’s new friend with the kind of cynicism and ridicule that would probably have been widespread in a more genuine yarn.
While implausibly effortless, his romance with the uber-hot high school valedictorian is also a nice side-plot. Boy sees girl, girl pays boy $500 to write her graduation speech, the rest is academic. All I can say is that kids in America aren’t short of cash. Half a G for a five minute speech? A forged note to get you out of cross country cost a quid when I was at school. But that’s inflation for you..
Yet despite some good supporting turns, the thing that ties the whole thing together is the devotion that Mrs Black still has for her estranged husband. Jodie Foster convinces us with the kind-hearted Meredith from in front and behind the camera. If the audience didn’t believe in her continued devotion and concern for Walter then the whole thing would fall apart instantly. Of course Gibson is the lynchpin and he draws on his turbulent recent past to create a character who is tangibly tragic but also wryly self-aware. Similarly, although The Beaver is riddled with melancholy, the hand puppet schtick still manages to deliver some effective comic flourishes. Foster has created a small and flawless world, but the stories within it are still heartfelt and convincing.