These Days Weekend Preview: ‘The Beaver’
Art Imitates Life or Vice Versa
Thursday, May 12, 2011
Street festivals are in full swing in San Diego now that spring has arrived. We'll talk about options for your weekend and get the behind-the-scenes scoop on Mel Gibson's new movie, "The Beaver."
Sometimes what happens offscreen can't help but inform what's onscreen. Take Mel Gibson's performance as a man caught in a downward spiral in "The Beaver" (opening May 13 at Landmark's Hillcrest Cinemas).
"The Beaver" was one of the scripts highlighted on The Black List, an annual list of Hollywood's best liked unproduced screenplays compiled by some 300 executives. AT various points Steve Carrell and Jim Carrey had both been considered for the lead role of Walter Black, a toy manufacturer on a downward spiral of depression. But eventually the script landed in the hands of Jodie Foster who wanted to direct the project and to have her friend Mel Gibson (the two shared the screen in "Maverick") take on the role. So Gibson was cast as Black. The character becomes suicidal but finds escape from his depression through a hand puppet he finds in a garbage can. The Beaver puppet (who seems to be channeling Ray Winstone) provides an alter ego and outlet for Black.
But watching Gibson as Black self destruct onscreen can't help but conjure up any of a number of tabloid scandals Gibson has been going through in real life. So in some ways "The Beaver" is meant to provide both Black and Gibson with a mean of putting their lives back on track. Gibson's problems are not with his acting abilities but rather with his inability to control himself off screen. So his performance as Black is solid and he accurately plays a man falling apart. Yet it's neither the type of performance nor the type of film that is likely to resurrect his career in one fell swoop.
The film repeatedly insists that mental illness is dark and difficult and doesn't often result in Hollywood happy endings. Yet after all the protestations, "The Beaver" delivers exactly the kind of neat little package that he so vehemently denies it will cop out to. A story of a suicidal man who finds redemption of sorts through a hand puppet requires a special touch. It could have been done by David Lynch and been given a deeply disturbed quality, or maybe it could have gone for a twisted comic take a la Spike Jones/Charlie Kaufman's sensibilities. But Foster is not an inspired director. She's just a kind of straight ahead craftsperson. Her approach makes the story mundane and unwilling to commit to either dark drama or quirky comedy.
"The Beaver" (rated PG-13 for mature thematic material, some disturbing content, sexuality and language including a drug reference) serves up multiple layers of a train wreck. On a certain level it's hard not to look at it because you want to see how bad it is and you are tempted to consider how close what's onscreen is to what Gibson might have gone through offscreen.
You can listen to the discussion of the film from These Days' Weekend preview.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You're listening to These Days on KPBS. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. And we're gonna check in with KPBS film critic, Beth Accomando, about an odd movie that opens this weekend. It's called the beaver. It stars Mel Gibson as a depressed man who communicates through a hand puppet of the puppet is a beaver, and it has an Australian accent of here's a scene from the movie with Gibson and Jody foster who directs and stars in the film.
JODIE FOSTER: Hello. The person who handed you this card is under the care of a prescription puppet. Walter, what the hell is this?
MEL GIBSON: Did you read the card?
FOSTER: Yes, I --
GIBSON: Read the card.
FOSTER: I --
GIBSON: Read the card.
FOSTER: The person who handed you this card is under the care of a prescription puppet designed to help create a psychological distance between himself and the negative aspects of his personality. Please treat him as you normally would, but address yourself to the puppet. Thank you.
GIBSON: There you go.
FOSTER: Is this some kind of a joke?
GIBSON: Oh, hardly, love.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Beth, is this some kind of a joke?
BETH ACCOMANDO: I wish were it. I wish it were funnier on some levels.
CAVANAUGH: Well, let's look at it. This film was crippled before it even finished production, in part by its star. What happened? Remind us, at that time, and how did some at the studio releasing the film called summit deal with the bad dress around Mel Gibson.
ACCOMANDO: Well, you know, having Mel Gibson in it is both a curse and a blessing, [CHECK AUDIO] leading up to it, and during this, in case you don't remember, he made anitsemitic remarks, he also had a problem with his girlfriend and there were some --
CAVANAUGH: Terrible phone messages.
ACCOMANDO: Yes. And abuse, alleged abuse and things like this. So the studio didn't necessarily want to release this at the height of all the publicity that the negative publicity that he was getting. So they kind of tabled it for a while. So it's had a little bit of a rocky start. They had a release date, then they decided to do this kind of slow roll out, so in the hopes they had it at the south by southwest festival [CHECK AUDIO] and they could open it in some theatres, and then roll it out across the U.S. but that didn't really work.
CAVANAUGH: It has gotten some very good reviews. What did you think of his performance though, Mel Gibson in this?
ACCOMANDO: You know, he does a good job. And there is that certain blurred line between where does fact and fiction kind of separate? He is a character that is having a melt down. He is trying to come back from it. There are moments where you feel like huh, I wonder how close this is to what really happened to him. The main problem is the film itself. It's a film that wants to be dark and constantly is telling us that, you know, we're not -- you know what's going on to this character is dark and it's dangerous, and it's tragic. And you don't normally get this point of view. And -- but then it ends up giving us exactly what it claims it won't. It says it won't give you the Hollywood ending, and it does.
CAVANAUGH: I see. So is this the movie that is going to resurrect Mel Gibson's career, Beth?
ACCOMANDO: I highly doubt that beaver is going to bring him back into public good graces.
CAVANAUGH: It sounds like it's the kind of thing that sounds like it was a good idea at the time. But just doesn't translate.
ACCOMANDO: Well, originally, Jim cary and Steve Carrell had been attached to the project, which maybe [CHECK AUDIO] on the one hand tries to be dark and disturbing, and on the other hand kind of humorous, and it never commits to either side. So it either really needed to be much more dark, or it needed to be more bizarrely funny. And it was neither. It's kind of bland of I guess that's the thing. You have a hand puppet that some guy is trying to deal with his depression through. And it's kind of mundane.
CAVANAUGH: Well, I want to thank you, Beth. We have been talking about the new movie starring Mel Gibson called the beaver. And that was -- we talked about it with KPBS film critic, Beth Accomando. Thank you.
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