The diagnosis, delivered in a clinical voice-over, comes right in the opening frame: "Walter Black is a highly depressed individual." Once in possession of a successful career plus a solid marriage, he has hit the bottle hard and slid deeply into the slough of despond. Since Walter Black is played by Mel Gibson, whose own career has been torpedoed by off-camera behaviour that he has attributed to the same twin demons of booze and depression, the typecasting is hard to miss.
Notable too is the director, Jodie Foster, a long-time friend of Gibson even through his travails and the one responsible for giving him this particular role. Inevitably, all this background seeps into the text of the film, so that, at times, it's as if we're watching two movies at once here - one is transparent, the other is speculative, both are often bizarre and ultimately disappointing.
For the moment, let's confine matters to the picture on the screen - a psychological drama so in love with its own imagination that it leaves nothing to ours. The result is a weird sort of literalism, beginning with the title conceit. Abandoned by his long-suffering spouse, Meredith (Foster), living in a claustrophobic hotel room, and poised on the very brink of suicide, Walter is saved by a hand-puppet - yes, the Beaver - that he happens to find in a dumpster. Draped over his left arm, the stuffed thing becomes his alter ego, which, for reasons best known to him, he gives voice to in a crude Cockney accent pitched somewhere between Michael Caine and Bob Hoskins. Instantly, his depressed self vanishes and a better fate emerges - in short, Wally leaves it to Beaver.
I wish I were joking. Clearly, the screenplay is looking for some black comedy here, but Foster's direction is too earnest to locate it. Instead, she quickly moves on to the warm reception given to the new and improved Walter & Co. Introduced with a calling card that reads "Prescription Puppet," the Beaver proves surprisingly adept at winning over skeptics. In the office, co-workers are impressed with his amiability and confidence. Back at home, youngest son Henry is delighted with his dummy Daddy, and Meredith too can't help but be thrilled with his regained vigour, especially in the bedroom. There, she enjoys the puppet's staying power; elsewhere, though, that same staying power - Walter even showers with it - has her worried. Seems Wally can't imagine life without the Beav.
The only holdout is the teenage son, Porter (Anton Yelchin), who continues to despise his father and fear any inherited resemblance. Nevertheless, he is also in the voice-appropriation business: For a handsome fee, Porter writes essays on behalf of high-school classmates too lazy to do the job themselves. One of his clients is the lovely Norah (Jennifer Lawrence), a troubled beauty with her own dark past. So the parallel lines are laid out for an inter-cut sequence - Porter on a first date with Norah, Walter on an anniversary dinner with Meredith. Each tête à tête ends badly, paving the way for a matched set of complications and what can only be called a metaphor-free zone.
Consider this. When the frustrated teen feels like he's banging his head against a wall, he is - literally. When Walter ends up fighting with himself, he does - literally. And when the moment comes to sever his hands-on relationship with the Beaver, well, don't even ask. Yikes, literalism abounds, but realism proves awfully scarce, especially when it's time for the third act to organize a veritable parade of reconciliation scenes, all marched out with unseemly haste.
Sure, there's lots of pretense but it's all the wrong kind - just silliness posing as sensitivity pretending to be art. Yet, amid the morass, a couple of performances survive. Lawrence, so beguiling in Winter's Bone, has far less to work with here but still manages to make something out of not much, giving a flat character compelling shape. As for Gibson, everything about him is terribly convincing. He looks tired and strained and haunted and, even with that ridiculous Cockney voice, like a man who knows a thing or two about the id's dark urgings. Whether this is acting depends, I suppose, on which film you're watching - the silly movie on the screen or the speculative, and graver, one that lies somewhere within. You decide.
- Directed by Jodie Foster
- Written by Kyle Killen
- Starring Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, Jennifer Lawrence
- Classification: PG