To say The Beaver is a strange movie would be an epic understatement. And it’s an especially weird experience for a queer film buff, given that it teams Hollywood’s most prominent lesbian with its most legendary homophobe (and all-around bigot). Indeed, this feature is a strange collision of inadvertent timing, casting and premise.
The film, for those who haven’t heard, stars Mel Gibson as a suicidal man who has alienated his wife and children because of his mental illness. The opening moments have him at rock bottom, stumbling through a drunken, botched suicide attempt. He regains consciousness to an epiphany: a beaver puppet suddenly begins to talk to him, and Mad Mel becomes instantly convinced that the road to mental health is through his new toy. He then returns to his family, and the corporation he owns and manages, and must negotiate his way through his new life, with a puppet he speaks through and refuses to remove.
Aside from the beaver, this movie has a great big elephant in the room with it, and that, of course, is Gibson’s most recent very public breakdown. Last year, recordings of his abusive rants against his girlfriend were made public (thank you, TMZ!). In perhaps the most noteworthy, Gibson barks at the mother of his most recent child, admonishing her for dressing in such a slutty manner and suggesting her look could lead to her getting raped by “a pack of niggers” (yes, that’s a direct quote). This film was actually shot before that media meltdown, and The Beaver was shelved for close to a year as distributors tried to figure out how to handle the situation.
The real-life Gibson crisis supplies the film with an additional layer of dramatic tension: while everyone – especially Americans, it seems – loves a comeback, can Gibson actually evoke audience sympathy? After all, a film as earnest as The Beaver desperately requires the spectator to be on board. In that respect, Gibson’s casting was as brilliant as it was inadvertent – just as he’s trying to win over his family members, he’s trying to win over the audience. While some people might be able to forgive him, now that he’s dissed both Jews and blacks, his base must be dwindling. Gays and lesbians, of course, were the first burned by his bile; let’s never forget Braveheart.
Jodie Foster directs and also stars as Gibson’s long-suffering wife. It is certainly an irony befitting a place as strange as Hollywood that its most prominent lesbian has also been one of Gibson’s main defenders (the other being an African-American woman, Whoopi Goldberg). It certainly prompts the question: why does Foster stand by someone who has said the vile things Gibson has? On the promo circuit for The Beaver, Foster has talked about her own battles with depression — perhaps she feels connected with him over mental illness. Or perhaps she identifies with all the pressures that come with being famous and leading a double life of sorts.
As an actor, Foster is part of what is arguably one of the most ludicrous love scenes in cinematic history. After working his way back into her heart, she and Gibson have make-up sex. But not just the two of them: she, Gibson and the beaver puppet have a threesome. (I’m not making this up.)
But as a director, Foster’s milquetoast style works against the premise itself. Almost immediately after returning home with his puppet, Gibson manages to charm his family with his antics, even his especially estranged teenaged son, who listens from the next room. A heart-warming signal from the director of Home for the Holidays (does anyone actually remember that film?) so early in The Beaver lets us know what to expect, effectively robbing the experience of virtually any dramatic tension. Kyle Killen’s screenplay does toss us a fairly nasty curveball in the final act, but Foster’s directorial style tends to bland everything down. This movie is almost as spicy as a vegan potluck. I kept wondering what The Beaver would have looked and felt like if it hadn’t been directed by someone so earnestly seeking to make us feel good. What if this wacky concept been handed to Lars von Trier, Todd Haynes or even John Waters?
Yes, it’s strange. But as anyone who’s ever sat through a meeting with a bunch of academics knows, strange can also be boring. The Beaver is one of those cinematic oddities that’s ultimately more fun to talk about than actually sit through.