Letting a puppet do his talking

It's hard for a nonprofessional to diagnose Walter Black, but the surname suggests his general mood. Depression isn't the half of what's eating him.

When first we meet the suicidal toy entrepreneur played by Mel Gibson in The Beaver, he literally and figuratively is adrift on an inflatable that's the opposite of a life raft. His arms are outstretched as if nailed to an invisible cross.

Jodie Foster, Mel Gibson, and The Beaver, the tireless title character who speaks in a Cockney accident.

Directed by and costarring Jodie Foster, The Beaver chronicles soul-dead Walter and his resurrection by means of a beaver hand puppet. The puppet enables him to express emotions he cannot as husband, father, and employer.

That this ambitious, if deeply odd, film is so compulsively watchable is a credit to Gibson's compelling performances, both as spiritless Walter and the Cockney-accented voice of the tireless title character. But who is in charge, the puppet barking orders or Walter speaking for it and manipulating its mouth? Whichever, with the puppet Walter comes back from the brink and is a husband and father again, even if he does bring The Beaver into the marital bed.

It would be enough to play the listless entrepreneur or to supply the voice for the chipper puppet. Yet there is Gibson, doing both simultaneously, a creepy and compelling case study of dissociative identity disorder.

If Walter's split personality treads perilously close to Gibson's tarnished image as a tormented guy struggling with alcoholism and self-control, so be it. The movie doesn't belabor the point. It has other points to belabor.

Namely, dividing its characters into id-ridden, ego-driven, and superego-ruled. And suggesting that career is symbolic of character. Walter's wife Meredith (Foster, in an enervated performance) is a designer of roller coasters, which, given Walter's highs and lows, must mean she's on the Cyclone both at home and at work.

Veering from family tragedy to absurdist comedy to possessed-by-demons thriller, Kyle Killen's script has at least one mood shift too many. Mostly, though, it focuses on the sadness of those who express themselves only by proxy.

Walter is a ventriloquist for The Beaver; Walter's son, Porter (the excellent Anton Yelchin), is a ventriloquist for fellow classmates who hire him to write term papers in their voices. One of his clients is Norah (lovely Jennifer Lawrence), who has her own reasons for being emotionally blocked.

When its gifted actors aren't hamstrung by the literalism of Killen's screenplay, The Beaver is bizarrely liberating.

Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.com. Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at http://www.philly.com/flickgrrl/.


The Beaver

Directed by Jodie Foster. With John Bernhardt, Mel Gibson, Kris Arnold, Anton Yelchin, Riley Thomas Stewart, Paul Hodge, Jennifer Lawrence, Michelle Ang, Cherry Jones, Jodie Foster. Distributed by Summit Entertainment.

Running time: 1 hours, 31 minutes.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (for mature thematic material, some disturbing content, sexuality and language including a drug reference).