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“The Beaver,” Reviewed

“The Beaver,” Reviewed (photo)

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A version of this review originally appeared as part of our coverage of South by Southwest 2011.

If you can disassociate yourself from your personal feelings about actor Mel Gibson — a fitting gesture for a film about a man who invents an alternate personality — it’s not hard to admire his performance in Jodie Foster’s new film “The Beaver.” But that’s a pretty big if, since so much of film plays like a meta commentary on Gibson’s personal problems and on Foster’s attempts to support her troubled friend and star. “People seem to love a train wreck when it’s not happening to them,” someone says in “The Beaver,” and it’s a line that applies equally well to Gibson and his role as suicidally depressed family man and toy company CEO Walter Black. “The Beaver” isn’t a train wreck, but it’s not exactly high-speed rail, either.

For reasons “The Beaver” never explains, Walter begins the film lost inside a crippling bout of depression. He’s disconnected from his wife Meredith (Foster) and his two kids, teenaged Porter (Anton Yelchin) and sevenish Henry (Riley Thomas Stewart). After Meredith kicks him out of the house, Walter’s throwing some of his crap into a dumpster, where he spots, and then rescues, a ratty beaver puppet. That night, Walter gets drunk and tries to commit suicide. Waking up the next morning a failure, he’s greeted by the puppet, who calls himself The Beaver and speaks to him in a gruff English accent. “I’m sick,” Walter croaks. “On that we agree,” The Beaver replies. “The question is: do you want to get better?”

The Beaver’s solution? Let him do the talking (and the thinking) for both of them. Soon The Beaver’s running Walter’s life: playing with his kids, romancing Meredith, even revitalizing his company JerryCo. (whose aural similarity to Jericho, “the lowest permanently inhabited site on earth,” has to be intentional). These scenes play as heartwarming, goofy comedy of the sort you’d expect in any Hollywood movie about a dysfunctional family. It’s only during the third act that The Beaver’s role in Walter’s life begins to change and that “The Beaver” finally begins to take us down some interesting and unexpectedly dark paths. These scenes are the best in the film, the most sharply written by first-time screenwriter Kyle Killen and the most fascinatingly acted by Gibson giving two simultaneous performances as both the Beaver and the real Walter, who is increasingly imprisoned inside his own mind by his wooly life coach.

With focus and framing, Foster visualizes the constant fluctuations in Walter and The Beaver’s relationship. As they set off on their journey together, the two appear mostly side-by-side. As the Beaver asserts more and more control, he appears more and more in focus, until he’s dominating the frame and even blocking Gibson’s face completely at times. It’s a simple technique, but an effective one.

“The Beaver,” like its protagonist, has a lot of admirable qualities and a lot of problems. It deals seriously with the dangers of depression but it also trivializes the recovery process. It gives “Winter’s Bone” star Jennifer Lawrence a juicy supporting role as Yelchin’s valedictorian-with-attitude love interest, but it totally wastes Foster as Meredith, who does nothing but stare at Gibson worriedly the whole time (on a side note, isn’t it odd that the least developed character is the director’s?). It builds up Yelchin as a counterpoint to and commentary on Gibson’s, then uses him to repeatedly enunciate the themes of the movie, namely the shiftiness of identity and the healing power of love. Its climax is bold and risky in a way that few Hollywood movies are, but its denouement feels rushed in a way that suggests reshoots or rewrites.

When I saw “The Beaver,” for the first time at South by Southwest, I said that I thought the film “could have benefitted from a more subversive director, someone willing to find a more even balance between the story’s dark mind and warm heart.” Now I’m not so sure. After watching it without that raucous SXSW audience, “The Beaver” feels less like an unfunny comedy than a serious and sad movie that’s been marketed and interpreted as a comedy.

Still, the lame joke fits: I’m of two minds about “The Beaver.” It’s flawed, but full of ambition, and despite its problems, I admire the hell out of its chutzpah (I’d gladly watch the film a third time, which is always a good sign too). There’s a lot of things I would change: Foster’s character; the film’s heavy-handed score; its overly articulate teenagers and their way of explaining exactly how they’re feeling at any given moment. But I wouldn’t touch anything about Gibson’s performance. It is something to behold. Because Walter is quickly overwhelmed and basically replaced by The Beaver, Gibson has to play him without ever getting to speak as him, communicating his fragile perspective with gestures, facial expressions, and haunted, soul-bearing glances of the sort that cut right through all the crap about the actor’s private life and show you just how much he understands this character’s pain. If the real life Gibson would take a page from Walter and maybe let someone else do the talking for him once in a while, it might not be so hard to appreciate his work, or to separate him from it.

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

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Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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