Madness. It's a theme that artistic types love to go on about, and hold a fascination of sorts with the general public. Maybe there's a dark glamour to the whole disturbed mindset, or we like them 'cause they articulate something about all of us we daren't vocalise to others. Maybe they are just outright interesting. Whatever the reason, representations of behaviour that is rather outside the norms of our society are not uncommon.
The Beaver sets it's sights on mental illness, introducing us to the protagonist already in the throes of depression. He's a high powered business executive with a wife and two kids, and he spends almost all of his time sleeping. This information is delivered, naturally, in the form of voice over, which will occur another couple of times in the movie. When it comes it seems as if they are trying to create the impression of a narrator that is addressing the audience at all times, through the movie. This aspect is not carried over convincingly, however, and as such the voice over sections feel patronising and lazy.
After a couple of failed suicide bids, the protagonist finds himself in conversation with a puppet beaver he picked out of a bin earlier, and after this australian accented fake fluffy animal throws a bunch of cliches at our protagonist it goes ahead and starts to put his life back on track. He heads home, wins over his wife and youngest son again and heads into work is a sensation. Not his eldest son, however.
And, really, his eldest son is the heart of the movie, and by far and away the best thing here. We see the Porter coping with a near OCD obsession with his father, a loathing of his own genes. He's also a writer of other people's homework and when the attractive and intelligent cheerleader approaches him to write her speech, he's set on an interesting journey. The cheerleader herself is really the third protagonist, who goes on a journey that sees her character change as much as anyone.
Jodie Foster is a steady hand as the director, but perhaps too steady. This is a film about a man having a mental breakdown and living through a puppet, which is a premise with an edge and the capacity to disturb - at the very least it is a powerful concept. The end result is very middle of the road. This a movie you can take your family to, and on the whole lighthearted. There is a stylistic pretentiousness to it, but it's a very bland stylistic pretentiousness. It's a "serious human drama" made to appeal to the mass market. The result? Somehow, this movie really lacks a distinctive feel, or any memorable qualities.
The central metaphor here is a strong one, well executed until the final act. Early on we're introduced to the "memory box" - a box you make to keep your memories. Beavers use wood to build dams in real life, and by introducing wooden boxes and having so much work with wood in the film, we get a nice and clear idea of how the themes are working. Then the final act happens and introduces a fundamental thematic contradiction - can't go into it, without spoiling unfortunately. What had been a well balanced film - mostly lighthearted with a dark undercurrent - becomes very dark in a twist that causes the movie spills over into self-parody for a good ten minutes at least. Whilst it does manage to regain a bit of dignity towards the end, the tonal dissonance and thematic messiness does rather spoil things.
Mel Gibson is very good as a troubled and mentally ill man (who'd have thought it?) and Anton Yelchin is similarly effective as his beleagured son. The females of the movie are not so convincing, as both Jodie Foster and Jennifer Lawrence turn in very forgettable performances; perhaps more the screenplays fault in Jodie's case, however, as her character is always hovering around the peripharies.
There have been a few movies centred around mental illness I've seen relatively recently: Black Swan, Submarine and (on DVD) Memento. All three possess an incredible intensity, a crushing sense of suffocation. They get you into the protagonist's mind and let you feel some approximation as to what it must be like to be them. The Beaver? Nope. I liked the central metaphor, liked the music, there were a few very good performances and the story of the son was a good one. Pity that the end result is a confused and bland movie that never comes close to being anything but average, and I really can't reccomend it.