When we’re introduced to Walter Black (Gibson), he’s in a pretty sorry state. Detached from his family, disrespected by his colleagues, sinking into a pit of his own making and lost in a world of alcohol and blissful unconsciousness, we’re never privy to what got him to this point (though it’s fair to imagine it might involve blaming the Jews for ALL THE BAD THINGS and verbally attacking a policewoman, ZING).
Having been chucked unceremoniously out of the home he shares with his wife (Foster) and kids, he decides to spend the night in a hotel with a few old friends: booze, TV and attempted suicide. Clearing out the boot of his car for supplies, he stumbles across an unlikely companion in a nearby dumpster – a ragged and stained beaver puppet. Deciding to take it with him on a drunken whim, Walter awakes the next day to find the Beaver on his arm, forcibly on his team and sporting a rather natty cockney accent. “I’m the beaver”, he/Walter says, “and I’m here to save your god-damned life”. From from that moment, Walter is transformed. Communicating only through his furry counsellor he is jovial, witty, full of life and manages to – within a montage of less than ten-ish minutes – turn around his marriage, his company and his family. But how long can Walter hide behind the grinning teeth of a moth-eaten mockney?
There’s no denying that some of the most poignant moments in screen history come out of deeply darkly funny situations. One only has to watch basically any Coen brothers flick, any episode of The League Of Gentlemen or anything with Madonna trying to act in to know that tragedy and hilarity live side by side. The problem with The Beaver is that it doesn’t have a strong enough grip on its comic sensibilities or its drama to have one inform and heighten the other. Rather, the two states seem to exist entirely apart from one another, so that a blackly funny sequence (Gibson and Foster and Beaver enjoying a gloriously inappropriate sex romp, for example) is dampened entirely by the next super-serious scene (involving, say, their son’s entirely dull teen angst).
With poignancy and comedy battling against one another, the resulting film is awkward and strangely joyless. The central tension – whether Walter will be able to give up his rodent-y crutch and regain a sense of self – is perfect for a black comedy, but doesn’t have the emotional core for what Foster wants it to be: a complex and touching drama about a man totally lost. In wanting to highlight the tragedy of Walter’s situation, Foster (as director) sacrifices the big laughs that the piece really needs to flesh it out; puts the kibosh on the highs in order to make sure she hits the necessary lows. Even (the admittedly excellent) Gibson seems somewhat reined in – the comic potential of a man arguing with himself via a hand-beaver is endless, but he’s never really given the space to enjoy it.
It’s a real shame, because under a slightly more experienced hand The Beaver could have been brilliant: dark, tragic, hilarious and deeply refreshing. But sadly, as it is, it seems unsure what to do with itself. Though Walter himself is happy to embrace the freeing joys of the Beaver, the film itself is sadly far more subdued about the whole idea.