"SXSW Doesn't Boo Mel Gibson in 'Beaver.'"
That's the headline to Nikki Finke's Deadline report of the premiere of Mel Gibson's new film The Beaver at the Austin film festival, and it speaks volumes. For months, it was questioned whether—regardless of his performance—critics and audiences could appreciate any film starring Gibson, given his despicable off-camera behavior. At last night's screening, it was time to file away the actor's personal drama and judge the film—about a manic husband who channels his spiraling thoughts through a beaver hand puppet—on its merits, even if it meant offering praise to a personally deplorable artist. Not only did the audience not boo, but the reception was warm, even resounding—and could spell a high point in Gibson's career, at the most unlikely of times.
As audiences took in his film in Texas, Gibson was turning himself in to California police for booking on battery charges, for allegedly assaulting his ex-girlfriend. The news adds a bitter dynamic to Deadline's report that the film received a strong ovation at the conclusion of its screening. "If their reaction is representative, this is unlikely to hail the end of Mel," Catherine Shoard wrote in The Guardian. "It may even mark his public rehabilitation."
For months, Jodie Foster, who directed and stars in The Beaver, has been publicly singing Gibson's praises, not only referring to his acting in her film but to his credit as a person. While some wondered why the well-respected, beloved actress would go out on such a lonely limb with her effusive adulation of the star, the campaign seems slightly less unsettling after last night's release.
"We were incredibly grateful to have Mel's performance in this movie," she said during a post-screening Q&A, which was by all reports extremely cordial, considering the obvious temptations to question her about Gibson's many scandals. "I wouldn't change anything." Movieline reports that the crowd broke into cheers and applause following the comment, a sign that they were "clearly won over by the actor's off-kilter performance."
Critics were, generally, won over as well. HitFix says The Beaver is "structured in a very canny way," concluding that the film is "a potent reminder of why Jodie Foster should have made more movies by now." The highest praise of the film came from The Hollywood Reporter: "A risky bet that pays off solidly, Jodie Foster's much-delayed "The Beaver" survives its life/art parallels—thanks to its star, Mel Gibson—to deliver a hopeful portrait of mental illness that is quirky, serious and sensitive."
Most of the negative response, which was too soft to even be ruled a pan, was reserved for the film's unexpected tone. Whether it was because of the visual absurdity of promo posters featuring a wide-eyed Gibson holding a beaver hand puppet, or the assumed life-imitating-art satire that would accompany a film starring Gibson about a deranged man's breakdown, most had pegged The Beaver to be a comedy. Foster's film, however, is a sensitive, provocative drama, a realism that colors the experience of watching Gibson play a self-destructive man encountering the darkest moments of his life.
Yet even those who were put off by the film's unexpected darkness were complimentary of Gibson's performance. In the most decidedly negative review of the movie, Slashfilm's Peter Sciretta concedes that, "Gibson gives it his best, and delivers a great performance."
Writing off Gibson and the film, with its seemingly ridiculous plot and does-no-justice-to-the-final-product trailer, has been a popular exercise. Our own Terrence Henry gave three reasons for why he wasn't planning to see The Beaver, among them that the film didn't look very good. The fact that The Beaver is better than people expected puts the public and the press in a seemingly uncomfortable place. While deriding the film as a flop and eviscerating Gibson's performance in it would have been cathartic for those fed up by the actor's behavior, critics are saying The Beaver is actually good. And that Gibson is great.
Going forward, it should be interesting to see how audiences and the press navigate the film's theatrical release. At the height of Charlie Sheen's meltdown, Two and a Half Men continued to dominate in TV ratings, which hints that with controversy comes curiosity—The Beaver might not be as big of a commercial disaster as some might think. And while Austin's SXSW audiences are typically more polite and forgiving than the mainstream public, this could be the first step of an unwelcome Hollywood comeback.
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