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“This is not a comedy,” actor-director Jodie Foster said clearly and pointedly from the Paramount Theatre stage at the SXSW Film Festival on Wednesday night as she introduced the world premiere of The Beaver. “The film reflects the struggle of one man in the midst of a spiritual crisis.” She went on to add: “This was the biggest struggle of my professional life.”
Those in attendance could be forgiven for thinking she was referring to how her star Mel Gibson’s personal and very public controversies affected the making and delayed release of her new film. But when a viewer followed up with her during the post-screening Q&A, Foster made clear that she was talking about finding the right tone for a movie with an eccentric premise, a deeply intense story line about depression and the comic bits and wit sprinkled throughout by screenwriter Kyle Killen (who lives in Austin). It’s something she described as “sensitivity without sentimentality.” [ReadThe Hollywood Reporter’s review here.]
The film is good, though it dances on a tightrope of tone and hard-to-digest plot that some audience members may not be able to go along with. The original years of depression for Gibson’s Walter Black are done away with in a prologue with voice-over in the Cockney accent his character will later use to voice the hand puppet, which gives the film its title. This leaves the first third to flirt with the sunny resolution usually reserved for the third act once Black finds and begins using the puppet, and his wife and young son buy into it almost immediately. Only the eldest, resentful son — played by Anton Yelchin — isn’t sold. Gibson’s scenes of drunken suicide attempts play to some viewers as physical comedy; laughs peppered the theater early on. Then passionate sex, professional breakthroughs and a renewed Walter dangerously turn the story toward the treacly.
But then Foster and Killen wisely get on with the real thing, and the movie does pull you into its heft and seriousness as things go bad again (and then worse). There are nice character touches throughout, and Jennifer Lawrence adds her usual riveting flair as the cheerleader valedictorian carrying around her own tragedy.
Killen’s script deftly steers an insightful course between the corrupt platitude “Everything is going to be OK” and the courageous, universal admission, “I’m not OK.” “When the cameras are gone,” Killen said afterwards during the Q&A, “you have to contend with yourself.”
As for viewers’ ability to wall off their opinions of Gibson’s anti-gay, anti-Semitic, misogynistic behavior and sympathize with his portrayal of a deeply broken man in crisis, the early shot of him carrying a box of liquor bottles to his trunk is not likely to help.
During the Q&A after the premiere, Foster referred somewhat obliquely to Gibson’s troubles as “all kinds of things that were beyond our control” while she muscled through postproduction, but she maintained that Gibson is the most beloved of actors on sets to those who have worked with him (with her The King and I co-star Chow Yun Fat apparently a close second). “I have no regrets about him being in the film,” she said plainly and unequivocally.
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