By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060

The Beaver sounds like a broad comedy, but it is most assuredly not. You’d think it would be creepy or cutesy, but it’s neither. And it should be instantly forgettable, but it’s not easy to shake.

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Instead, this off-kilter comedy-drama about a guy who, following a psychotic breakdown, communicates only through the titular puppet that he wears on his hand is fascinating in its artistic perversity and the singularity of its vision.

If you want to see how a grimly fascinating movie can use its off-screen echoes and art-imitating-life ripples to help it captivate and resonate, leave it to The Beaver.

Mel Gibson stars as Walter Black, the depressed, suicidal, aptly named CEO of a toy manufacturing company who struggles to find a way to go on and function in his world of psychic pain.

Jodie Foster, who also directed, plays his skeptical wife Meredith, who has thrown him out of the house, and Anton Yelchin his older son Porter, a troubled high schooler who resents his dad’s destructive delusions and wants his mom to divorce his embarrassment of a father.

Opposite Yelchin, Jennifer Lawrence plays the class valedictorian involved in a budding romance with him.

To continue to interact with his loved ones — and as a means of starting fresh — Walter decides to speak only through the beaver puppet that he wears on his left hand.  Insanely odd behavior, to be sure, which he acknowledges by telling everyone that it is a shrink-prescribed technique.

But while wearing the hand puppet and providing its lines in a Cockney accent, all the while moving his lips unselfconsciously and exhibiting no pretensions as a ventriloquist, he raises his game as a father, as a husband, and as a corporate entrepreneur.

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Porter hates the puppet as much as he does everything else about Walter, but his younger brother, grade schooler Henry (Riley Thomas Stewart), is charmed.  Hey, dad’s a little strange, sure, but on the other hand he’s back and he’s brought an entertaining friend along with him.

In her third directorial venture, Foster (Little Man Tate, Home for the Holidays), once again exploring family dysfunction, finesses the outrageousness of the premise and absurdist thrust of the material by delivering The Beaver with a directorial straight face — that is, in a fairly realistic and straightforward way.  Her approach makes for an indisputably engrossing viewing experience.

The original screenplay by debuting Kyle Killen goes in a questionable direction or two in the late going, but there’s no denying the command of the premise or the uniqueness of the central character.

Regardless of your feelings about off-screen Gibson, the brilliance and intensity of his work on this portrait of a schizophrenic meltdown is difficult to ignore, even more so when you consider the level of difficulty involved.

Think about it:  Gibson spends most of his time giving two simultaneous performances in the same shot.  True, he may be exploiting the audience’s familiarity with his well-documented dark side, but this is nonetheless an astonishing bit of artistic sublimation.

Kudos to Gibson for doing it so well and director Foster for showcasing it so effectively — even if it comes at the expense of her own afterthought of a supporting performance.

So we’ll talk to the hand about 3 stars out of 4 for an original and challenging black dramedy about mental illness that doubles as a poignant family drama.  Credit the troubled and talented Mel Gibson for giving The Beaver teeth.

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