Wednesday, November 2, 2011

I've already watched "The Beaver" for you

It is not the worst film ever made. 
It is not even the worst film Jodie Foster has ever made.
Or the worst film Jodie and Mel have made together.

It is pretty gawd-awful.  Here's why.

The plot of The Beaver involves a sad little American family headed by a depressed father/husband who begins to express himself through a hand puppet. It is a suicide and madness film, rated PG-13.  Don't let that fool you.

So many things to disclose before we move on from here.
1. Jodie is the goddess.  Don't ask to see my collection, because it will frighten you, and then the FBI will call.
2. Puppets will indeed steal your soul.
3. A band of co-workers (including me) spent a few weeks using puppets of our bare hands to express all the negative feedback we couldn't deliver ourselves, rather like Seinfeld and friends doing the belly button voice.  We did not paint faces on our hands or anything; we just pointed them at people's faces and said 
angrily (but in American accents) "That's the stupidest idea I've ever heard!"  
4. I acknowledge depression as a real and crippling disorder that drives people to desperate measures

So I am not dismissing the film on its premise alone.  Even if I did reject the premise, I acknowledge that you can make very good films out of completely implausible premises. But I do buy this premise, and have seen it filmed well before.  Magic, of course, did this very well.  Donny Darko will make you throw out every childhood stuffed animal you ever had. I might suggest... oh, Castway.    Fight Club.

If you watch this on DVD, you will first sit through a strange PSA from imalive-dot-org about a depressed whale (think the Zoloft guy, swimming) and an encouraging  mustachioed moon who lets the little whale know "you don't have to swim alone."  It is made of textile art, which is itself haunted -- textile art is  the very 
atoms of puppets sprung to life as other puppets -- and features some Triplets of Belleville music that is itself disorienting.  This brings me to my first point:

Jodie Foster dreams in French.
I have no proof of that.  But now it is a sentence indexed on the Internet.  Jodie is fluent in French and schooled on the French New Wave (English for "DO something already!")  Some films should be in French.  The opening of this film, with the sound off, is very artsy fartsy and does draw you in.  It is a shame you cannot watch it in French.  Only Spanish, and this is decidedly not a Spanish film.  It struggles to find its tone, and never really does.  Most of the broader comedy was cut out, and you'll be glad for it, because it wasn’t funny.

Jodie was trying for "wry," I assume because she uses the word 3 times in the first 10 minutes of commentary.  I assume she meant definition 1 "Dryly humorous, often with a touch of irony" and not definition 4 "Being at variance with what is right, proper, or suitable; perverse." 

The Michael Caine voiceover that opens the film is not Michael Caine, as you will soon learn, but having the Beaver speak as Michael Caine is so distracting that you can never fully suspend your disbelief.  I was already 5 minutes in recasting the Beaver as, say, William Shatner, or Linda Hunt. should have been Linda Hunt.

The timeframe of this story is odd -- way too much happens in such a short period of time.
The first day, Jodie decides Mel has to leave.  Now, if you are going to be mentally ill in America... in the movies... it helps to  be self-employed, or some variation of self-employed (See also United States of Tara) Jodie has a work-at-home set up a roller coaster designer for a Japanese firm. 

That's what I said.
Mind the brick that is falling on your head.

Mel piles a senseless pile of stuff into his trunk and drives off to a hotel -- not a nice hotel, because he doesn't deserve nice things, though he has some kind of 5000 sqf home for 2 children 10 years apart.  We do not know what has depressed Mel so much, and I don't think we really need to.  Later there are a couple of lines 
about his father's suicide, which are not delivered by a mallet and therefore refreshing.  I rather like the idea that we just meet him this way, as he is.  In fact, I would have removed the opening V.O. but I won't rewrite this whole film.

There is a good scene in the hotel room, Nicolas Cage style.  This is sad-suicide Mel -- tragedy mask to Lethal Weapon's zany-suicide Mel -- and he is acting hard.  But already I don't like this guy Walter Black (MALLET) and I barely know him.  After a self-inflicted mishap in the hotel (or 2, or 3) he wakes up eye to eye with The Beaver, and decides it’s time to come home.  He shows up back at the house with a little card claiming the Beaver is a kind of talking cure and he is ready to move back  in.

Only the older son calls Bullshit -- because it is the next day!  The very next day!
But Jodie takes him in, because it seems to make her younger son happy.  This is 9 year old Riley Thomas Stewart, playing a mentally deficient 7 somewhere between Cindy Brady and that weird kid in Shane.  He looks like all of the Lawrences, but may be familiar to you as young Barney in flashback episodes of How I Met Your Mother.

The introduction of The Beaver shifts the film into a "no one can see me or hear me" trope as the younger son acknowledges The Beaver as a real member of the family (notice how Mel's lips never NOT move).  Now that Mel has kicked x years of clinical depression in 1 evening, he can go back to work as (brace) the president of the family toy company.  Of course he has to own the company, or his worklife is impossible and now we are just making Barfly The MechanicMonster's Ball.  (do NOT watch that as a triple feature without supervision)  The Beaver makes a speech to the toy team (getting ready for the Big Toy Fair) that reminds me, as I am often reminded, of the non-profit  executive who returned from his leave of absence to say to the Board, "My electroshock therapy has left me with some memory loss.  So it will be helpful if we could go around the table and introduce ourselves."

In his speech The Beaver offers a golden parachute to anyone who has no faith in him after 2 weeks as CEO.  Because 2 weeks is all it takes to turn the failing company around, launch Toy Fair, and convince your workforce they work for a Beaver Puppet.

The Beaver's/Mel's rise to cult stardom might be completely ridiculous if we hadn't just made Tiger Blood t-shirts, or pretended that we all really liked Amy Winehouse and what a shame.  Because that is such freshly trod ground, I could almost accept the idea that Walter/Beaver would get on the Today Show and win over the people.
The film wants to become a "message movie" 1 hour into a 90 minute piece.  Music swells in the background 
to tell us to FEEL that he is saying something deep, just like all the other characters we are supposed to believe are watching The Today Show.  I defy a viewer to repeat the big speech, even immediately after the scene shifts.   So I wrote it down for you. (Remember to read in your Michael Caine accent)

"Sometimes, Matt, we reach a point where in order to go on, we have to wipe the slate clean.  We start to see ourselves as a box that we’re trapped inside, and no matter how we try and escape – self-help, therapy, drugs – we  just sink further and further down.  And the only way to truly break out of the box is just to get rid of it altogether.  I mean, you built it in the first place.  If the people around you are breaking your spirit, who needs  ‘em?  Your wife, who pretends to love you.  Your son, who can’t stand you.  I mean, put ‘em out of their misery.  Starting over isn’t crazy.  Crazy is being miserable, and walking around half asleep.  Numb.  Day after day after day.
“Crazy is pretending to be happy, pretending that the way things are is the way they have to be for the rest of your bleeding life.  All the potential, hope, all that joy, feeling, all that passion for life is sucked out of you.  No, reach out, grab a hold of it, snatch it back from that blood-sucking rabble."
Jodie watches from the kitchen with her Somersby brow... "you are not my huuuuzzzband..."
Walter leaves the studio and is immediately embraced by the crowd outside.

And all I am thinking is, "Doesn't his shoulder hurt from holding that puppet up?  I can barely brush my hair some mornings." 

Walter's big idea for the Toy Fair is so ridiculous you will throw a real throw pillow.  Why wouldn't his idea be... a Beaver puppet?  It is just a lazy execution of an already stupid idea.  Cue Tom Hanks, "Why does the robot turn into a building?  What good is that?"

Why does he even have this puppet?  It was in his box of stuff from the trunk of the car.  Presumably, wouldn't the family know the lore about this puppet? Is it a Rosebud moment waiting to happen? Nope.  We just have to buy that a Toy Maker has Toys, and stop asking questions and watch the movie.

I have not even mentioned the B-plot.  Oh, there is a B plot, also of a Cyrano theme, involving the older son and a terribly wasted Oscar-nominated Jennifer Lawrence (the Winter's Bone girl) playing a girl the script decides will be like this.  The "this" is a valedictorian who hires the older son Porter (MALLET) to write her 
graduation speech because she can't express herself and it is important to her Mom.  (sins of the parents. etc...) She says to Porter she needs him "inside my head." 

Remember this sentence.  In about 20 minutes she will scream "You don't know me" when he does get in there.

I don't really want to spend time on the B-plot.  It is another movie.  It is an afterschool special.

The Beaver makes Walter popular at home too.  He fixes sinks.  He plays with the boy.  He makes crazy-man sex with Jodie, whom we never believe as a waif-wife with no ability to stand up for herself or her family.  Though pocket-sized Jodie has been raped or nearly raped in at least 8 films by my count, Frowsy Housewife is not her color.  When she finds out that The Beaver is not medically-sanctioned (which only she believed) she announces that she has "rented a house."

"I've rented a house."  Not an apartment.  Not "I'm going to live with my sister."  Not, "why don't you take the basement until you can find something," like the rest of us might have to.  In The Movies, everyone has enough money to change their situation.  This isn’t about a guy from the loading dock and his wife who works at Town Hall.  You can rent an entire second house and move away.

This set-up now leaves Walter and the Beav alone in the house, and things take a bizarre horror turn -- I'll reference Magic again, and Psycho.  OOOh... Black Swan....Unfortunately, we’ve never believed the Beaver is really in charge, so when he takes over the danger doesn't feel particularly real.

Meanwhile, over in the B plot, Jennifer Lawrence's character changes tack again, and who cares.  It's just a break from the main storyline: 2 wooden teenagers in trouble for Straight A student bad-assness.  Porter does end up writing her speech, but also seems moved by it on graduation day, as if he has never heard it before.  If this were a paper for David Pesto's auteur theory I could give you 2 paragraphs about surrogate voices and alter egos or some such, but we're all friends here.  

I have tried to suggest films you could watch instead of this one, for a more cathartic experience and some much better acting.
For alcohol category, I'll add Leaving Las Vegas, When a Man Loves a Woman
For sad marriages without so much alcohol, wallow in Blue Valentine or The Bedroom

Things to enjoy in The Beaver:
Terry Gross cameo.

Yep, that's it.  Nothin' else.

1 comment:

  1. I'm sure you know that the real definition of crazy is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result each time. Nice critique of a clearly bad movie. M


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