The two most provocative things about The Beaver are the potentially raunchy pun in the title — "I'd like admission to The Beaver, please" — and the filthy puppet that gives the film its name. Early in the film, toy company executive Walter Black (Mel Gibson) discovers an unexpected respite from his debilitating depression through the plush hand puppet he finds in a Dumpster.
The film's art directors could have crafted a gorgeous mammalian creation worthy of Jim Henson, but instead deliver a beaver puppet that's as crappy and stupid-looking as possible, like the Velveteen Rabbit after a week on Skid Row. Director Jodie Foster practically revels in its threadbare lousiness. It's like having a prop from a subversive John Waters movie block your view of a quiet family drama like Ordinary People.
The Beaver begins with a superb premise for satirizing suburban family malaise and corporate conformity, but Foster treats the film as a solemn occasion for exploring mental illness. Walter may be cracking up, but The Beaver's in the straightjacket.
Screenwriter Kyle Killen sets up plenty of jokes, and there's an amusing montage of Walter's failed attempts at other therapies, including hypnosis and drum circles. A suicide attempt turns into a series of pratfalls. After knocking himself unconscious, Walter awakens to find the puppet on his head speaking to him in a gravelly Cockney accent, like he's possessed by Ray Winstone. The plaything offers to help Walter pull himself together, so when he returns to his family and his office, the beaver insists that everyone address Walter through the puppet.
No, they don't try to disguise the fact that Gibson moves his lips to deliver the puppet's lines, in fact, the troubled movie star gives two fascinating performances here. The beaver speaks with a gruffly affectionate, matter-of-fact voice, addressing Walter's wife Meredith (Jodie Foster) as "Luv." The beaver proves more alive than Walter himself, who comes across as sorrowful and uncontrollably sleepy before he sticks his hand inside the puppet head.
Through the puppet, Walter tries to reconnect to his nonplussed wife, employees and sons (Anton Yelchin and Riley Thomas Stewart). When he tries to get past the puppet's influence, however, the beaver reveals a sinister side, similar to one of those thrillers about ventriloquists fighting to control their evil dummies. Gibson's eyes take on a shifty, trapped-animal look as he tries to kick his new addiction.
While Walter shakes up his life by speaking through the beaver's voice, his alienated teenage son Porter (Yelchin) reveals a comparable talent, as he hires out to write his classmates' term papers thanks to his knack for imitating how they think. A gorgeous star student (Winter's Bone's Jennifer Lawrence) requests that Porter write her a speech, and the film brushes at themes that involve the importance of expressing one's authentic self.
Nevertheless, the high school subplot moves at a crawl and seems to take place over a couple of weeks, while Walter's story unfolds over what must be months. Both in her direction and performance, Foster seems self-conscious and chilly, as if embracing the film's anarchic humor would make light of mental illness or Gibson's personal problems. The script doesn't really dig into Walter's psyche or background, while the style proves too sterile to fill in the blank spots. Despite the work Gibson and Foster obviously put into the project, The Beaver leaves too many jokes and emotions all dammed up.