Split Personality

Mel Gibson redeems himself by playing a depressed man who finds solace in a puppet

Watching Mel Gibson’s relentlessly reckless self-destruction has been about as much fun as standing by helplessly, observing a truck jackknife on a crowded turnpike. This is what it must have been like in the old days, when Fatty Arbuckle ruined his career with a Coke bottle and Frances Farmer was dragged, kicking and handcuffed, from Cary Grant’s leading lady to the insane asylum. If Gibson has any fans left, now’s the time for them to rally. The occasion is The Beaver, a brave and unusual film directed by his long-time friend Jodie Foster, and a good reason for his defense team to say “I told you so.”

The movie is a study of clinical depression and eccentricity, two subjects with which the star has had some first-hand experience. It has elements of soul searching reflected through the lens of black comedy, but once you recover from the basic conceit you won’t find much to laugh about.

Gibson, looking weary and ravaged, plays Walter Black, a hopelessly unhappy toy company executive who has lost his ability to regain his interest in life. He’s tried drugs and therapy without much success, and sleeps for hours at a time, day and night. Meanwhile, his family is falling apart around him. His wife Meredith (Foster) struggles to function, but gets no help from her husband. When he sleepwalks through office hours, drinks excessively and even flagellates himself to stay awake, she finally throws Walter out of the house. Their nervy 17-year-old son, Porter (the talented Anton Yelchin), who despises his absentee father, is in big trouble at school for running a business ghosting and selling homework to his classmates, while their youngest son Henry (Riley Thomas, a standard-issue moppet from Hollywood Casting) is victimized by bullies and whining to get his Daddy back.

Then, in the serious stages of committing suicide, the dejected Walter discards all of his belongings in the trash and experiences a miracle. In a dumpster, he finds a discarded glove puppet with the face of a beaver and finds a way to communicate. He sends a note to everyone he knows, informing them the hand puppet has been prescribed by his doctor as a form of re-birth, and insisting they address it instead of him. After an understandable period of adjustment, people go along with the gag. Speaking through the cockney voice of the beaver, Gibson sounds like a gravelly Michael Caine. Henry loves it, Walter’s sex life with Meredith is rejuvenated, and the beaver even inspires a new toy that rescues his company from bankruptcy, to the joy of the frustrated marketing director (Cherry Jones).

Obviously a complete mental breakdown is on the way as the film shifts from whimsy to lurid melodrama from the Black Swan school of dark delusion. Add a teen subplot about a mysterious cheerleader (Jennifer Lawrence, from the ghastly Winter’s Bone) who pays Porter $500 to write her graduation speech. Too bad he didn’t also write the screenplay.

The Beaver has moments of cogent emotional realism, but most of the time you don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Foster’s balanced, gimlet-eyed and level-headed direction prevents the eccentricity from getting too wonky. The result is an offbeat film that is definitely not everyone’s cup of Prozac, but its understated, introspective sense of self-discovery and reinvention in the most fragile of lives is admirable.

I didn’t find the script’s redemption and rehabilitation totally persuasive, the ending is too tidy to piggyback the heavy metaphoric load that precedes it, and the scenes where Matt Lauer and Jon Stewart both interview The Beaver on network television are downright ludicrous. But even when satire threatens to de-rail the most sobering intentions, the marvel of Gibson’s conviction lifts The Beaver back on the right track. Tightly controlled and uniquely troubled, Walter is a difficult role. The hand puppet becomes Gibson’s alter ego, a theatrical device to separate him from the negative aspects of his personality, and although it’s odd and sometimes exasperating, he plays every transitional mood swing with grace and a kind of madness that becomes magnetic.

Who can say what works when it comes to dealing with mental illness. To anyone who has ever experienced the pain of fighting off clinical depression, it seems like a perfectly logical modus operandus—until The Beaver assumes too much power and turns into a control freak. The only way to get rid of him is to lose part of yourself. Whatever Gibson has lost is neutralized by acting of power and resonance. Whatever you think about him, he still has talent, and it’s a pleasure, for a change, to see the best side of his split personality at work.

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