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updated 5/5/2011 9:17:55 PM ET 2011-05-06T01:17:55

Review in a Hurry: Jodie Foster's new feature about a grade-A jerk who's more human when his hand puppet does the talking is the perfect role for the Mel Gibson of right now as he tackles a new role--and his own persona--head-on. It probably won't be the return to stardom a cameo in The Hangover Part II might have been, but that's fine. The Beaver is more substantial, allowing audiences the chance to reconnect with a star who's always been a much better actor than celebrity.

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The Bigger Picture: Walter Black (Gibson) is recently separated from his wife (Foster) and kids. Living out of a liquor-store-adjacent motel, Black's depression (and anger) runs deep. After a failed suicide attempt, he finds unlikely salvation in the store dumpster, a ratty old beaver puppet just waiting to be brought to life.

Of course, the puppet isn't really real. (This ain't Pinocchio.) In fact, as the Beaver speaks through Walter, there's no attempt at the ol' "throwing the voice" routine. It's just Walter putting on a Cockney accent to the delight of his too-young-to-know-better son, Henry (Riley Thomas Stewart). The Beaver persona allows the severely maladjusted Walter to interact with his loved ones in ways he hasn't been able to in years. Strange how for Walter the Beaver feels so right when it's clear to everyone else (except maybe little Henry) that he's a middle-aged man talking through a puppet. And it works to the film's advantage, presenting the audience with a story of mental illness that, as enjoyable as it is, never lets us forget that Mel Walter is a serious head case.

Even way back in his Lethal Weapon days Gibson's performances would go from focused to completely unstable in a nanosecond. So this isn't an entirely new kind of role for him. It might be that we see him differently now. What's amazing is that onscreen as Walter, he still manages to charm.

His older son, Porter (Anton Yelchin) doesn't see any charm in Walter or the Beaver. He's way more interested in the class valedictorian/head cheerleader Norah (future Hunger Games star Jennifer Lawrence) to care. Porter has a gift for writing other students' term papers--and making it sound like they wrote it. Norah may be smart but she has no idea how to write her commencement speech. We know where this is going, but Yelchin and Lawrence have chemistry so it works.

There maybe be a lot of talk about this being the return of "actor Mel," but The Beaver is also the return of director Foster. The Academy Award-winning actress hasn't directed a film since Home for the Holidays way back in '95 (the same year Mel won his Oscar for Braveheart). Like her other films, The Beaver is essentially about fractured families. She excels at grounding her actors in her special brand of reality. At first, some of the performances are mainly about reacting to the Beaver's antics. But as the story goes on though, even the smallest of roles--like Cherry Jones as Walter's partner at his toy factory--leave a mark.

The script by Kyle Killen is straightforward: Walter gets puppet, family thinks he's crazy, family accepts it and then fallout. But the characters, specifically the Beaver, never disappoint. Especially convincing is when the plot switches things up with the Beaver getting mean. Really mean. And still, very funny.

The 180--a Second Opinion: Producer Steve Golin has made memorable films including Being John Malkovich, which showcased a fascinatingly quirky world. As we said before, Foster does a terrific job bringing the characters to life, but visually, the look and feel is a tad generic. Just imagine what Spike Jones would have done with this material. Maybe for the sequel? With just the puppet?

PHOTOS: 2011 Summer Movie Guide: The Hottest Flicks!

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