Step aside Wilson and Harvey — here come Bianca and the Beaver in a couple of remarkable movies that feature inanimate creatures as key co-stars. Bianca and the Beaver — there’s probably a good joke or two there somewhere, but, surprisingly, these films are not comedies.
Both The Beaver and Lars and the Real Girl are each based on a highly regarded, original screenplay — the first was Oscar nominated, the most recent one once famously topped Hollywood’s “Black List” for best unproduced script. And neither movie relies on CGI — now that is remarkable.
Both films explore the complexity of extreme personal demons brought on by feelings of loneliness, isolation and depression. Each one has also been accused of being over-the-top: their lead characters certainly have the potential to come across not so much compelling as uncomfortable. And there is the Mel Gibson-factor.
So it’s a testament to the screenwriters, the directors and the actors that both motion pictures are also solid dramas with heart and soul. They are character-studies of two men seeking to re-discover themselves, their families and the outside world.
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In The Beaver, there’s star power as two-time Academy Award® winner Jodie Foster directs and co-stars with Academy Award® winner Mel Gibson in an engaging and darkly disturbing, emotional exploration of the personal challenges people struggling with depression encounter as they desperately seek a path (damn near any path) to healing.
Casting Gibson in The Beaver was Foster’s idea, and she had to fight hard to get approval given Gibson’s commercial marketability after a shocking series of tabloid trials, tribulations and tirades. While it is impossible to know the degree Gibson’s personal demons influenced his powerful portrayal, it is impossible to imagine that the first two actors attached to play the part of Walter Black — Jim Carrey and Steve Carell — could have delivered anywhere near the same level of performance.
Gibson gives a heartbreaking and honest performance as Walter Black, a once successful toy company executive and family man in the throes of depression who desperately seeks redemption after a botched suicide attempt. Without explanation, Walter begins his road to recovery once he dons a hand puppet. Over time, he begins to speak strictly through his new-found avatar — yes, a beaver sporting a bad Aussie/Cockney accent and a bad attitude as well.
While The Beaver is primarily a psychological character study of a man who is on the brink of self-destruction, Kyle Killen’s multi-layered screenplay also presents a surprisingly heartfelt love story concerning Porter Black (Anton Yelchin), the oldest son, who falls in love with Norah (Jennifer Lawrence), the high school’s head cheerleader and valedictorian. In fact, their story is a powerful parallel journey to Walter’s and it is so well developed it could have served as the basis for a movie all its own.
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The Defending Champion
I guess DuPont wasn’t kidding when they declared, “Better Living Through Chemistry.” At least that’s what I have come to conclude after screening Craig Gillespie’s surprisingly intelligent and compassionate Lars and the Real Girl.
Lars Lindstrom (Ryan Gosling) is a reclusive, obviously troubled fellow who pretty much lives a lonely life in a garage apartment in back of his brother’s home somewhere in the wintery Midwest. (Could Lake Wobegon be far away?) Unable to relate to real people, Lars only ventures out of his small, dingy living quarters when he goes to his shared work cubicle or to church.
And then we come to Bianca — the remarkably lifelike, full-sized, silicone sex doll. She may be quiet, very quiet, but she is pliant and pliant is good, or so we are led to believe. And she is just what Lars needs. When the UPS truck pulls away and the large crate is opened, his life changes immediately for the better. In a simple, no–nonsense, matter–of–fact manner, Lars introduces Bianca to everyone as a paraplegic missionary of Brazilian and Danish decent who has come to America on a sabbatical.
Eventually the townsfolk not only accept her, they begin to individually include her in all kinds of activities. In fact, Bianca is even elected to the school board — a bit surprising, perhaps, but this is Garrison Keillor Country, or a reasonable facsimile thereof. (And remember what Mark Twain once said, “In the first place, God made idiots. That was for practice. Then he made school boards.”)
In The Beaver, Anton Yelchin is terrific as the troubled Porter, a young man who is addressing his own fears by learning to speak through others by hiring out to write homework papers for fellow students. Equally important, Jennifer Lawrence’s portrayal of the most popular girl in school battling a secret demon of her own is outstanding in its own right. Likewise, Riley Thomas Stuart as young Henry Black will win your heart as the only family member who accepts his Dad for both what he is and isn’t. As for Foster’s on-screen performance, it was properly understated and believable. Admittedly, a man using a beaver puppet as his one and only voice among family and co-workers is both a brash and outlandish premise for a movie, even if this is clearly no ordinary hand puppet. “I’m the beaver, Walter, and I’m here to save your goddamn life.” The question is, can he do so and can we, as an audience, believe what will transpire from this point on?
Again, Kileen’s screenplay is outstanding. It is strong on substance and strong on style as well, incorporating a surprising amount of symbolism. For example, Kileen chose a beaver for the hand puppet; of all the animals in nature it is the beaver that possesses the unique dual role of being both a “builder” and a “destroyer” in that the dams it builds destroys the existing flow of a river. Foster’s Meredith Black, on the other hand (no pun intended), is the designer of roller coaster rides, a perfect metaphor for her up-and-down family life. And the toy company that Walter runs is known as Jerry Co. — pronounced exactly the same as the Hebrew city famous for being the lowest permanently inhabited site on earth.
More importantly, The Beaver is blessed with a terrific crew of creative technicians including cinematographer Hagen Bogdanski (best known for his work on the Academy Award® winning German film The Lives of Others), production designer Mark Friedberg, costume designer Susan Lyall and editor Lynzee Klingman. Based simply on the premise, one might surmise that The Beaver is going to be a comedy; nothing could be further from the truth. This is one hard-hitting, dark, at times disturbing film that explores loneliness, its impact on our lives, how to accept it as a human condition and how to hold onto others. Under the steady directorial hand of Foster, everything comes together as the film ultimately reaches a shocking climax.
Thanks to an extremely well–crafted, poignant and uplifting Oscar–nominated screenplay by Nancy Oliver, Lars and the Real Girl is a quirky and endearing tale of a reclusive man and his mail–order bride is among the most unusual, winning and memorable movies I’ve seen in the past few years.
Other than the persistent dinner invitations from his caring, concerned sister–in–law, Karin (Emily Mortimer), no one in this small town seems to notice Lars. No one, that is, except Margo, the wholesome, winsome, willowy coworker. Margo is winningly played by Kelli Garner, perhaps the slinkiest actress working today. She’s a scene stealer, that’s for sure.
Another actress who deserves special mention is Patricia Clarkson, whose character is the surprisingly astute doctor/therapist that Lars sees on a regular basis. In fact, everyone who appears on camera does an outstanding job — not since John Sayles’ Matewan (1987) has there been a film more perfectly cast from top to bottom — but it is Ryan Gosling’s eloquently understated Golden Globe–nominated performance as the somewhat troubled Lars that clearly leads the way. With the possible exception of Johnny Depp, it is hard to imagine any other current actor capable of pulling off this difficult role as intelligently or as sympathetically.
The film also benefits from the skilled talents of its cast and crew, most notably cinematographer Adam Kimmel (nominated twice by the Independent Spirit Awards for work on Capote and Never Let Go), production designer Arv Grewal and editor Tatiana S. Riegel (The Men Who Stare At Goats). There’s no doubt that love is often blind, and, apparently, it can be inanimate as well, but Lars’ sweet, sentimental journey with Bianca ultimately leads him to the real–life Margo. How this comes about in an honest, uplifting, intelligent way is something to behold.
Make no mistake, in the hands of less talented filmmakers Lars and the Real Girl would be little more than a television sketch. Or, worse — maybe it would have turned out like Love Story (1970). Even Ryan O’Neal would choose Bianca over Ali McGraw.
Some decisions are easy — paper or plastic for instance — but when it comes to Bianca or the Beaver, that’s a slightly different matter.
The underlying premise for Lars and the Real Girl is decidedly offbeat and fanciful, a joy to watch and a very satisfying film on all counts. If nothing else, one learns that for a mere $6,499 one can purchase from Abyss Creations a very beautiful trophy wife. Yes, this trophy wife is plastic, but aren’t most? Hey, the initial cost is quite reasonable, much more reasonable than the real thing, and let’s not even discuss the topic of on-going maintenance issues (and remember, Bianca’s pliant). With solid production values, a wonderful script, excellent performances Lars and the Real Girl girl is a gem. Maybe not a diamond or an emerald, but a darn fine amethyst at the very least.
The Beaver is anything but lighthearted or fanciful. The third act, in particular, turns exceedingly dark and more serious in tone, but it succeeds in coming across as both believable and genuine. Depression can be a debilitating illness that friends, family members, and romantic partners find difficult or impossible to understand. Sympathy is one thing, but true empathy is rare. The Beaver is empathetic toward Walter’s plight; the same holds true for his son Porter and his girlfriend Norah. One testament to the power of this production is the fact that at least one non-profit organization will be using The Beaver in its efforts to de-stigmatize mental illness and depression while providing tools and resources for families to support loved ones battling with this debilitating condition.
Two remarkable films, but only one can be declared the winner. While some critics have been less than kind in their reviews for the The Beaver, I’m reminded by what June Cleaver once said, “Ward, you were hard on the Beaver last night.” Not me — the winner of this Smackdown is one heck of a primarily nocturnal, semi-aquatic rodent. Yes, The Beaver wins even if the Blacks are not anything like the Cleavers.