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Mel Gibson straps on a beaver for his nutty return

The Beaver is a movie studio's worst nightmare. First off, you've got a troubled and batshit-crazy star whose various run-ins with the law and tabloids delayed the movie's release. There's also the premise: A mentally unstable man communicates through a beaver hand puppet as a twisted form of therapy. Then there's that title, which is open to oodles of vaguely dirty headlines.

Even if you can get past all that (good luck), there's still the very disturbing truth at the bottom of all this: The obviously nutso Mel Gibson is playing a character who's also a self-destructive weirdo, although in less hateful ways. So you can see why this movie is giving more than one studio exec a headache.

It doesn't help matters that director and co-star Jodie Foster isn't quite sure how to handle The Beaver. Is it a dark comedy? A broader comedy? Or is it a very serious drama about a man barely hanging on to his sanity? Hell, maybe it's supposed to be some sort of satire. Foster isn't sure, and you'll be just as confused — especially when you see this suicidal nutcase try to break free from his puppet dependency.

Gibson plays Walter Black, a family man whose life is crumbling around him. He and his wife Meredith (Foster) are separated, and he hardly speaks to his two boys. He's a depressed drunk when the movie begins, living by himself in a shitty hotel room, where he tries to kill himself.

Walter finds salvation in a beaver puppet he uncovers in a dumpster. He begins holding conversations with the furry creature (who sounds like Michael Caine, with a bit of Gibson's old Australian accent tossed in), who convinces him to turn his life around.

The beaver refers to himself as a "prescription puppet," explaining to puzzled onlookers that he will now be fielding all questions they ask Walter. And for the first time in his life, Walter connects with his family, sleeping with his wife again and building wood projects with his youngest son (with some help from the beaver, who's a natural with these sorts of things).

But Walter does everything with the puppet: showering, sleeping — even addressing employees at the toy-manufacturing firm he runs.

You may sympathize. But you won't laugh. Or care too much about the characters and subplots. Only Jennifer Lawrence (the breakout star of last year's great Winter's Bone), as a classmate of Walter's other son, shines through The Beaver's haze. She's the one real thing in this bizarre movie, which can't quite separate reality from woodland critters and crazy-ass movie stars.

Gibson plays a character who's also a self-destructing weirdo, although in less hateful ways.

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