Beaver, The: Dismal Box-Office for Mel Gibson-Jodie Foster

As predicted here in March, “The Beaver,” Jodie Foster’s third feature as a director, tanked at the box-office.  Who’s responsible?  Mel Gibson’s bad reputation off screen.  A bad film that didn’t get sufficient critical support.  It certainly is the worst film that Foster has directed thus far

Summit began the film’s domestic run this weekend at 22 locations, averaging a mere $4,745 per screen.  The film cost a reported $21 million, but thanks to considerable foreign pre-sales, Summit, along with Participant Media and Imagenation Abu Dhabi, have limited vested interests in the film. Summit plans to expand “The Beaver” domestically on May 20, after it screens at the Cannes Film Festival.  The film’s international rollout is slated to happen over the coming months.



World-premiering at the 2011 South by SouthWest (SXSW) Film Fest, “The Beaver” will be released by Summit Entertainment in early May in a platform mode. The studio faces an uphill battle in putting over a sharply uneven, tough to watch melodrama, which, among other problems, stars the controversial Mel Gibson.

Gibson’s last features have been flops, for one reason or another. It’s therefore a relief to report that the “Beaver”’s faults are not at all related to his work as an actor.  In  fact, he gives his demanding part all the resources that he possesses. Gibson is also the only one in the ensemble who plays a more or less fully developed part–and the only good reason to see the severely flawed picture.

No need to rehash here the negative press Gibson has generated due to his obnoxious conduct and unacceptable comments as a racist, bigot, homophobe, and most recently abuser of his companion and mother of his child (he admitted to battery). At this point, Gibson is more of a liability than asset to the picture’s potential commercial appeal.

What’s most annoying about “The Beaver,” which is based on the first screenplay by USC grad Kyle Killen, is that it feels like a first feature, or a film that’s not completely thought out or fully done. Structurally messy, the film also suffers from uneven production values, which is double disappointing considering its budget, $21 million. I doubt whether Summit could recoup its investment from the very iffy domestic grosses.

All three of Foster’s film as director, including the sophomore jinx “Home for the Holiday,” have been weak—but for different reasons. As a filmmaker, Foster does not show any improvement, narratively, dramatically, or technically, ever since since her feature directing debut, twenty years ago, with “Little Man Tate.”

Foster then experienced a sophomore jinx with the Thanksgiving turkey movie (in more senses than one), “Home for the Holidays,” starring Anne Bancroft, Holly Hunter, and Robert Downey jr. That movie was mean-spirited—despite its overt intentions. Relatively speaking, the first is her most interesting picture.

See our review

It’s truly impossible to watch “The Beaver” without taking into account biographical and personal factors of the talent in front and behind the camera. Foster, an out lesbian who has two sons with her partner, plays a mother of two sons, one adolescent, the other young. In the film, she is married to a neurotic, boozy, suicidal man (Mel Gibson), who has hit absolute rock bottom and who lives in a different world—literally and figuratively.

This is the second teaming of Foster and Gibson, who had appeared together in the trashy, anachronistic Western “Maverick,” directed by Richard Donner in 1994. That picture was an artistic failure but a commercial success.

Essentially, “The Beaver,” is the emotionally intense story of a man who embarks on a journey to rediscover his family ties, and restart his life with a new, healthier identity. But in the picture, what a long, tedious, repetitious odyssey that is.

Plagued by various demons, Walter Black was once a successful toy executive and happily married family man who now suffers from severe depression. He has gotten to the place where he has no coping mechanisms left.

In the first reel, Walter attempts suicide, which is depicted in a serio-comic way. First, he’s trying to hang himself with a tie in the bathroom, then by almost jumping off the terrace of a high-rise building. We get the notion of a man who has lost his will (and purpose) to live as a “normal” human being.

No matter what he tries, Walter can’t seem to get himself back on track. Things change radically when by sheer accident, a beaver hand puppet enters his life. Realizing that everything else has failed him, Walter regards the beaver hand puppet as his savior and redeemer.

From that point on, for almost an hour, Gibson’s Walter is inseparable from the had puppet, which he had found in a dumpster outside of a liquor store, where he usually tanks on booze.

The second reel of the film is dull and repetitious, because we get what could be described as variations of a single theme. Walter goes to work, eats dinner, even make love to his wife, while wearing the toy on his left arm. Emerging from what had seemed like a fatal and terminal stupor, Walter begins speaking through the hand puppet, first to himself, and then to everyone else around him.

In a parallel story, Walter’s elder son, a typically alienated, ultra-smart teenager named Porter (Anton Yelchin) severs completely his ties with his dad. Burdened with various problems, Porter is contemptuous of his father, and struggles with his own demons as he plots a way to escape his family. He hoards money for a cross-country road trip and for college by charging students who are less gifted than him a considerable fee for writing their school papers.

Porter begins to befriend and then to court his class’s popular  and rich girl, Nora (Jennifer Lewis, Oscar-nominee for “Winter’s Bone”), who at first pays him $500 to write her

In contrast, the Blacks’ younger son Henry (Riley Thomas Stewart), who’s only t, embraces his father and gets closer and closer to him. There’s a heartbreaking farewell scene, when Meredith decides to pack her stuff and move out of the house with her two boys.

In the second half, the tale then assumes the shape of a fable, when Walter relinquishes his command at his company and becomes instrumental in turning his invention, the beaver toy, into an extremely successful item. All of a sudden, as one of the TV commentators says, “It’s Christmas in May.”

Sales are way up, the toy is a commercial bonanza, and Walter becomes a national hero, a celeb, whose appearances are in demand by every radio and TV station in the country.

Foster is obviously attracted the family stories—all of her three pictures deal with troubled families, or the particular psycho-social dynamics that define nuclear families.  But there are not enough interesting twists and turns in this rambling melodrama, particularly in the first hour, which is repetitious, about a fractured family and the means that it finds to heal itself.

The main problems of the film are not the acting or production values: Foster had hired as director of photography Hagen Bogdanski (who shot the German Oscar winner “The Lives of
Others”) and production designer Mark Friedberg (”Synecdoche, New York,”“Runaway Bride”).

The shortcomings are in the writing and in the direction.  With the exception of Walter, the rest of the characters are underdeveloped and schematic, not to mention the contrived ending (see below).

Foster has never been a good director as far as mise-en-scene is concerned, and many of the scenes here, like in her previous pictures, begin and/or end abruptly, and the transitions from one subplot to another are really rough.  Then, in the midst of intimate dialogue scenes, the camera suddenly moves to assume high angle or low angle, disrupting our emotional engagement for no apparent reason.

Moreover, Foster might have been too close to the material and too much in awe of her male star for she lets Gibson play and overplay the same scene (or similar scenes) time an again.  The camera gives him a lavish, overly deliberate treatment that feels like self-indulgent.  How many times can you see Gibson in close-up talking or fighting with his beaver?

Foster also struggles with the issues of pace and tone.  Sharply uneven, some of the film’s tempo is too slow (and dull) and some too fast.  The cutting is also arbitrary, and Foster doesn’t let crucial scenes fully play to their logical ending.  For instance, there is too much intercutting between Walter and Meredith going out for a formal dinner to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of their marriage and Porter and Nora going out on a date.

Unfortunately, the last sequence embraces a middlebrow, therapeutic sensibility. Foster and her scribe seem to be in  a hurry, rushing towards a neat resolution. This happy ending is unearned and almost negates the good elements of the story that precede it.

Here is a compromised movie, which doesn’t need a closure, which screams for thematic and emotional ambiguity.

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