People are going to be fascinated by The Beaver because of its perceived connection to star Mel Gibson’s personal life, but that morbid curiosity won’t get them very far. Even if Gibson’s personal troubles may have helped him in playing a man who’s hit rock bottom, his Walter Black is very different from the angry, misogynistic movie star of tabloid infamy. A quiet family man who runs a small toy company inherited from his father, Walter is so depressed and numb that as the movie opens he’s trying and failing to take his own life. Instead he fixates on a worn-out beaver hand puppet that he finds in a dumpster, and soon he’s turning his life around by speaking solely through the beaver, in a voice that sounds like Gibson’s impression of Michael Caine.
Behind the camera for the first time in 16 years, director Jodie Foster (who also plays Walter’s wife) approaches the premise with deadly seriousness, delivering all sorts of pop-psychology platitudes with unearned solemnity. The Beaver could have worked as a completely bonkers comedy, or it could have gone all-out dark and weird, but Foster drains the humor from the more ridiculous sequences, and she turns away at the story’s darkest moments. The subplot about Walter’s teenage son (Anton Yelchin) pursuing his school’s insecure valedictorian (recent Oscar nominee Jennifer Lawrence, mostly wasted) never fully connects with the movie’s main thread, and what sounds like an odd, interesting experiment squanders its potential on boring life lessons and bland sincerity.