Mel Gibson may be the biggest obstacle standing between Jodie Foster’s “The Beaver” and a wide audience, but he’s also the biggest reason that audience should exist at all. The troubled actor delivers a performance very few could pull off as a depressed father who begins communicating through a hand puppet, but Foster doesn’t know how to manage it or navigate the script’s seismic tonal shifts, and ends up producing a film that’s deeply strange, yet incapable of leaving an impression. Absent Gibson’s presence, the Summit release would be a modest arthouse draw; with it, it’s anyone’s guess.

The Beaver” first came to public attention in 2008, when Kyle Killen’s debut script was placed atop the Hollywood Blacklist for best unproduced screenplays. It’s easy to see why the script attracted such curiosity, and it’s just as easy to see why so many ended up passing on it. One gets the feeling that even the nimblest directors would have struggled to craft this outlandish, jumbled story into something that hits the emotional pressure points for which it aims, and Foster, while a capable and sensitive director, isn’t up to the task.

Bursting out of the gate with a Cockney-accented voiceover, the pic gives us a full montage of an average day in the life of Walter Black (Gibson), a “hopelessly depressed individual.” The CEO of a failing toy company, Walter sleepwalks through the rare moments when he isn’t actually asleep, creating unbreachable gulfs between himself and wife Meredith (Foster) and their youngest, son Henry (Riley Thomas Stewart). His other son, teenage Porter (Anton Yelchin), despises his father so much that he’s compiled a collage of Post-Its listing all of the traits they share, so that he can eradicate them one by one.

Finally thrown out of the house, Walter absconds to a liquor store, one of several points in the film where Gibson’s personal life either informs or interferes with his character (there’s even a self-flagellation scene). There, Walter discovers a ratty beaver hand puppet in the dumpster outside. In his hotel room that night, with the puppet on his hand and a gallon of booze in his blood, he attempts to hang himself in the bathroom. Failing at that, he instead heads to the balcony and prepares to jump, but falls backwards at the pivotal moment when a loud Cockney “oi!” distracts him.

When he comes to, the puppet (or “the Beaver,” as it asks to be addressed) has taken on a life of its own, and gives Walter a tough-love pep talk. Walter is, of course, manipulating and speaking through the puppet, though it’s unclear whether he’s aware of this. After a brief argument/monologue, Walter decides to cede complete control of his own voice to that of the Beaver, and even prints up a stack of explanatory notecards calling the Beaver a “prescription puppet,” designed by a psychologist to help distance him from his old mindset.

In the early going, the jaunty score seems to suggest this is all a dark sort of lark, but the film can’t decide whether it wants to be a bittersweet study of mental illness or an oddball farce. Walter’s sudden turnaround from sleepy-eyed zombie to doting father is also limned with off-putting haste, as he moves back into the house a new man, reconnecting with Henry and, most bizarrely, reigniting the home fires with Meredith. (A montage of Foster, Gibson and the Beaver having wild sex is one of the strangest things anyone is likely to see in a cinema this year.)

Craig Gillespie’s “Lars and the Real Girl” succeeded in turning a similarly ludicrous premise into a film with real heart, but “The Beaver” doesn’t have the same confidence in its own merits. Midway through, the picture spirals completely out of control, heading down one path as a skewed media satire and another, much darker one that seems right out of an early Stephen King novella.

Gibson is basically flawless in the role, giving auds the creeps in the early stages and then managing to suggest a newfound lust for life, even though he’s only living it through a medium. But his character is handicapped at every step. Most problematically, we hardly hear him speak in his own voice (or use his left hand) at all; hence aside from his “hopeless” depression, we have no real frame of reference for his sudden transformation.

Odder still, considering the singular strangeness of the character, Gibson recedes into the background for large segments of the film, with Yelchin getting comparable screentime for Porter’s tangentially related narrative. A nervy outcast with a thriving underground business writing school papers for his classmates, Porter is approached by cheerleader and valedictorian Norah (Jennifer Lawrence, who also played a Yelchin love interest in Sundance entry “Like Crazy”) with an offer of $500 to write her graduation speech. Porter, we’re told, has an uncommon ability to get inside the heads of his clients and write in their own voice — why such intense mimesis should be necessary for writing high school essays is unclear — and he starts spending time with her as research, discovering her secret grief over a recently deceased brother.

If this all sounds impossibly cluttered, it is. Given more room to breathe, these subplots all could have been stitched together, but the film is edited at such a skippy pace that there’s never time for the audience to get its bearings.

Tech credits are of a high quality, and the ventriloquist work on the titular critter is expertly handled.

The Beaver

  • Production: A Summit Entertainment release presented with Participant Media in association with Imagenation Abu Dhabi of an Anonymous Content production. Produced by Steve Golin, Keith Redmon, Ann Ruark. Executive producers, Jeff Skoll, Mohammed Mubarak Al Mazrouel, Paul Green, Jonathan King. Directed by Jodie Foster. Screenplay, Kyle Killen.
  • Crew: Camera (color, Deluxe prints), Hagen Bogdanski; editor, Lynzee Klingman; music, Marcelo Zavros; music supervisor, Alexandra Patsavas; art directors, Alex DiGerlando, Kim Jennings; set decorator, Rebecca Meis DeMarco; costume designer, Susan Lyall; sound (DTS/Dolby Digital), Jimmy Sabat; supervising sound editor, Michael Kirchberger; re-recording mixers, Tom Johnson, Lora Hirschberg; special effects coordinator, Tim Rossiter; visual effects supervisor, John Bair; visual effects, Phosphene; associate producer, Dianne Dreyer; assistant director, Douglas Torres; casting, Avy Kaufman. Reviewed at SXSW Film Festival (Headliners), March 16, 2011. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 91 MIN.
  • With: Walter Black - Mel Gibson Meredith Black - Jodie Foster Porter Black - Anton Yelchin Norah - Jennifer Lawrence Henry Black - Riley Thomas Stewart Vice President - Cherry Jones Norah's Mom - Kelly Coffield Park With: Zachary Booth, Jeffrey Corbett, Michael Rivera, Matt Lauer, Jon Stewart, Terry Gross.