The Beaver


 

The Beaver

A lot of beaver jokes are suggesting themselves but I’ll take the high road (for once).

(2011) Drama (Summit) Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, Anton Yelchin, Jennifer Lawrence, Cherry Jones, Riley Thomas Stewart, Zachary Booth, Jeff Corbett, Baylen Thomas, Kelly Coffield Park, Michael Rivera, Kris Arnold, Matt Lauer, Jon Stewart, Terry Gross. Directed by Jodie Foster

 

Depression is one of those insidious things that can trap you in a room and cut off all the exits. For some of us, depression is something we escape through drugs, alcohol or sex. For others, depression is something we learn to live with and accept as being a part of ourselves, often along with the medication we take to deal with it. Then there’s Walter Black.

Walter (Gibson) is the president of a toy manufacturing firm whose fortunes have fallen on hard times. This has led to serious depression on Walter’s part, robbing him of his inertia (as many depression patients do, he sleeps an awful lot) and his ability to communicate with his family. His teenage son Porter (Yelchin), already at odds with his parents as teens will be, finds new reasons to loathe his dad. His wife Meredith (Foster) tries to be supportive but even she has reached her limits. She throws his ass out, sadly, reluctantly but inevitably for the good of her children – there is another son much younger, Henry (Stewart) who doesn’t quite understand what’s happening.

Hitting rock bottom, Walter tries to kill himself but his attempts fail miserably. He finds a disreputable-looking beaver puppet and to his surprise finds himself able to speak through the puppet and say the things he’s wanted to say – and more to the point, discovering an avenue to rejoin his life.

It works wonders. Walter is able to reverse the financial decline of his company and reconnect with his family – first with Henry and then with Meredith. Porter still spews venom at his dad and is going through his own turmoil; he writes term papers and speeches for other classmates in their own voice. He’s in the middle of trying to connect with Norah (Lawrence), a cheerleader and class valedictorian who is going through her own life crisis.

But all is not necessarily golden. Walter is becoming consumed with the puppet, to the point that he uses it in his sexual reconciliation with Meredith which is just a little bit more than creepy. One soon has to wonder who’s in charge – Walter or the puppet and if it’s the puppet, where is Walter?

Foster, one of the most gifted actresses and directors of her generation, returns to the director’s chair for the first time in 16 years. She’s a marvelous storyteller – go see Home for the Holidays or Little Man Tate if you don’t believe me – and tends to prefer scripts with unconventional stories to tell, as this one surely is.

As a look at the effect of depression on a family, I’m not sure how to take it. As someone who battles depression himself, I can understand Walter’s behavior to a certain extent, although I kind of wonder what most psychologists would have to say about his self-treatment. I’m not sure talking in a funny cockney voice through a glorified sock puppet is the way to wellness.

Of course, one can’t discuss the film without at least mentioning the elephant in the room. Gibson’s threatening phone calls to his girlfriend became public. There are many who had yet not forgiven him for his anti-Semitic remarks five years earlier as well. His battles with alcohol are public record, and there are those who feel he is a miserable excuse for a human being. Personally, I’m not one of them; I think he’s made a lot of mistakes in his life; there are many people who are close to the man who say he’s neither violent nor racist but their voices tend to be drowned out in all the self-righteousness. I don’t know him personally; he may well think Jews are responsible for all the wars ever started. He may have just said that in a drunken depression. Either way, it’s not germane to the matter at hand.

Say what you like about him as a person, he is a really good actor. He captures the gaze of a man caught in the grip of depression without overdoing it. It’s a hangdog look, the look of a man for whom life has hit the rocks and he expects no better. As Gibson the actor shows the ravages of alcohol on his face, Walter the character shows the ravages of life there. It’s a performance that may on the surface seem over-the-top but when you peel the layers back you realize that you’re watching a man at the top of his craft constructing a gem of a performance.

Yes, there is some heavy handedness here – Walter unable to speak with his own voice and his son writing term papers and speeches in the voices of others but never his own while being terrified that he’s turning into his dad. Yup. And the literal battle for Walter’s soul that ends up….well, I won’t say because that would be telling.

The movie is considered  financial flop which can be attributed to the off-beat subject of the film (and Americans are less warm towards off-beat than they are to dramas, which is what Foster attributed the cold reception to) as well as quite frankly a general perception that Gibson is a jerk and his films should be avoided. That’s kind of sad because if you can filter out your feelings about the guy this is a pretty good movie, offbeat as it might be.

WHY RENT THIS: Gibson does a terrific job and has good chemistry with Foster.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The story is a bit of a mess. Heavy-handed pop psychology.

FAMILY VALUES:  The themes and subject matter is pretty much on the adult side dealing with depression; there are a few bad words and some disturbing images, not to mention a teeny bit of sexuality and drug references.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Foster originally wanted Kristen Stewart for the part of Norah but she was committed to doing Twilight so the then-unknown Lawrence was cast.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $6.4M on a $21M production budget; the movie was a major flop.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The Bourne Legacy

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Land of the Lost


Land of the Lost

Welcome to the cosmic trash heap.

(Universal) Will Ferrell, Danny McBride, Anna Friel, Jorma Taccone, Matt Lauer, John Boylan, Brian Huskey, Leonard Nimoy (voice), Dennis McNicholas. Directed by Brad Silberling

The existence of parallel dimensions is a theory many well-known scientists are beginning to take seriously. As of yet, however, the theory is largely unproven, but what if there was a way to actually travel to a parallel universe?

Rick Marshall (Ferrell) is a scientist who thinks he has proven just that. His quantum…er, tachyon…oh hell, just call it a thingamajig and leave it at that…needs a little more financing to get properly tested and Marshall appears on the Today show with Matt Lauer (himself) to explain why the $500 million is so necessary. After Lauer reminds him that most credible scientists think he’s a lunatic, the two wind up getting into a wrestling match. Personally, I think Lauer could school Ferrell. He may be smaller, but you know he’d fight dirty.

The fallout from the Today show appearance is disastrous for Marshall. Already a laughingstock, the Today show footage is a YouTube sensation, and Marshall loses what little credibility he has left. He’s reduced to lecturing elementary school students on the wonders of science until he meets up with Holly Cantrell (Friel), a former Cambridge physics student who dared to find Marshall’s theories worthwhile. For this sin, she was cast out of Cambridge.

When she finds a fossil that appears to be hundreds of millions of years old – of a lighter imprint, she knows that Marshall’s theories are true. Marshall is further blown away when he discovers it’s his own lighter that she found.

Holly takes Rick to the area where she found the fossil, as well as several crystals that seem to be irradiated with tachyons or some such gobbledygook; the main thing is that the location is a cave that has been turned into a tourist trap by redneck fireworks salesman Will Stanton (McBride) who agrees to take the two on a tour of the cave on a yellow inflatable raft. As the tour passes one cheesy tableaux after another, the tachyon detector/ectoplasm reader/tricorder thingy begins to go nuts. Rick turns on his thingamajig, the earth begins to shake, the little stream turns into a raging torrent and the three of them are sucked into a whirlpool o’ doom.

Except that it turns out they aren’t so doomed after all. They wind up in a strange world with several moons, deserts and swamps co-existing side by side, and the detritus of our world in a sort of cosmic trash heap, with cruise ships, ice cream trucks, drive-in movie screens and hotel pools all left to rot away in the garbage dump of the universe.

Unfortunately, there are other things in this place – grumpy tyrannosaurs (who are sensitive about their walnut-sized brains), larcenous pteranodons, lizard people in tunics (whom, as Will sagely notes, you can never trust), and proto-humans with plenty of hair, one of whom named Chaka (Taccone) befriends them. They have also lost their trusty thingamajig so they are stranded there. Can they find their thingamajig so that they can activate the whosis and use its gobbledygook to get them home?

Sid and Marty Krofft, who produced the original television show on which this is based, act as producers so you have to assume that they signed off on all of the changes and updates to their somewhat campy creation (so we can’t make any grave-rolling jokes either). When this came out in the summer of 2009, Da Queen and I originally made plans to see it but the reviews were so uniformly bad that we decided not to.

That’ll teach us for listening to those damned humorless critics. There is actually a sense of whimsy to the movie that I found rather refreshing. There is a running joke about the thingamajig also playing songs from A Chorus Line throughout the movie, which seems to exasperate Will and Holly no end. The look of the movie is deliberately kitschy, not only in a nod to the original series but I think for the laugh factor as well. While some of the CGI creatures are effective, they don’t need to be quite so much here – that’s part of the movie’s charm.

Ferrell has made a career out of playing dumber-than-rocks characters – Ricky Bobby, Ron Burgundy and George W. Bush, among others – and he’s added another one to the list. Marshall spews out factoids on subjects he knows nothing about and it almost always comes back to bite him in the derriere. Ferrell is one of those guys that people either love or they hate. Those who get him swear by him and those who don’t avoid him like the plague.

Anna Friel is in my humble opinion one of the more underrated comic actresses working today, as her work on “Pushing Daisies” and this film show. While ladies like Katherine Heigl get a lot of the higher profile comic roles, Friel is at least as good. It’s a shame she hasn’t really had a big successful movie to bolster her career the way Heigl has had.

The humor is a little scattershot and true to a movie about a place that has a little bit of everything, so too does the script and in situations like that, some things will work and others won’t. However, when the humor works the movie is as funny as anything Ferrell has done in his career (except for maybe his Celebrity Jeopardy skits on SNL – “Your answer is Threeve. I’m sorry, that’s not a number and your wager is…Texas.”) and that’s saying something.

WHY RENT THIS: The art direction is marvelous and there are some pretty nice laughs here. Friel is a much underrated comic actress.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The humor misfires more often than it hits home. You get the impression Ferrell is trying too hard to be funny.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some scatological humor, some raunchy sexual humor and some drug references; might be a little too much for smaller children, particularly when it comes to the monsters but otherwise okay for most audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the third version of the Sid and Marty Krofft kids show to be made; in addition to the original TV series and this, there was a second version of the TV show made in 1991 with Timothy Bottoms in the Ferrell role (although he was called “Tom Porter” in that version).

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a “day in the life of” feature regarding co-star Danny McBride.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Karate Kid (2010)