Jodie Foster‘s The Beaver, which showed to a packed house tonight at Austin’s Paramount theatre, is occasionally amusing but is mostly a sad and red-eyed and rather distressed family drama. Everyone thought early on that the basic story (i.e., a man surrenders his life and personality to a Beaver hand puppet) would be at least half-comedic, but it’s not. Everyone thought that the hand-puppet schtick would give Mel Gibson the freedom to go really manic and nutso, but he doesn’t. Because Foster doesn’t want that.

The Beaver is more of “heart” thing about healing and family and forgiving. And it uses lots and lots of closeups of Gibson’s lined and weathered face and his graying, thinning hair. What he does about 70% of the time is look forlorn and gloomy and guilty about his shortcomings. Foster is making a film, after all, about putting demons to bed and climbing out of our personal foxholes. So at the end of the day The Beaver, which is essentially a chick flick, guides Mel’s Walter character, who goes through major hell in this film, back to health and vibrancy.

So it’s a nice soulful movie, a film that cares and gives hugs and feels sad for poor Mel during his aberration period when he goes absolutely everywhere with that brown hand puppet and acts peppy and talks like an Australian Ray Winstone. But the Beaver scenes, unhealthy as they may be for Mel’s Walter character, give the film its sass and vigor, and when the Beaver goes away near the end, the movie loses its fuel and loses its raison d’etre.

As everyone knows, The Beaver is about Gibson’s Walker being depressed and on the verge of suicide, but then snapping back to life when he surrenders his identity and personality to the Beaver puppet. The Beaver takes over and Walter is alive again — his wife (Foster) falls in love with him again, his toy business becomes revitalized, he and The Beaver go on a lot of talk shows and appear on magazine covers, his younger son loves his aliveness….although his older son (Anton Yelchin) hates the whole Beaver routine and thinks his dad is an asshole.

I took Gibson’s decision to hide behind the hand puppet as a metaphor for the way all of us hide the weaker, softer, more vulnerable aspects of our personality from society and the business world especially. Gibson isn’t “himself” during his Beaver phase, but his Beaver personality is alert and creative and crackling, and he’s walking around all day with a spring in his step and paying his employees and steering a winning ship, etc. What’s so bad about that?

I’ll tell you what’s so bad about that. The real Gibson isn’t “there” for his family. He insists on bringing the Beaver into everything, including family dinners and his intimate moments with Foster in their conjugal bed, and that’s not good….or so the movie tells us. But what about people who are into being furries?

There’s a subplot about a relationship between Yelchin and Jennifer Lawrence that involves Yelchin being a paid term-paper and speechwriter for Lawrence and a few classmates — an extension of the idea of the real person hiding behind a “front.”

The Beaver is all right, not bad, a decent film, a respectable film…but nobody’s going to do cartwheels over it. Gibson deserves points and respect for nailing the Walter role and giving it hell in both senses of the term. Foster, Yelchin and Lawrence are fine.

The Beaver director Jodie Foster during the post-screening q & a.

Beaver costar Anton Yelchin.