Gibson Finds Salvation With Puppet; Spanish Civil War: Movies

Jodie Foster and Mel Gibson in "The Beaver." The film is about a down-and-out toy company executive who finds salvation through a beaver hand-puppet that replaces his own deficient personality. Photographer: Ken Regan/Summit Entertainment via Bloomberg

After his wife dumps him, depressed businessman Walter Black strings his necktie to a shower rod and tries to hang himself. The rod collapses, sending him crashing to the floor.

This awkward mixture of tragedy and comedy is the hallmark of Jodie Foster’s “The Beaver,” a film about a down-and-out toy company executive who finds salvation through a beaver hand-puppet that replaces his own deficient personality.

Mel Gibson, voicing the puppet with a cockney accent reminiscent of Michael Caine, does a valiant job in his dual roles as Black and the furry alter ego he pulls from a trash bin. Kyle Killen’s story could easily have turned into a farce, but Gibson gives his human and rodent characters surprising dignity.

Still, the film falters because of its wild swings in tone and its failure to explain Black’s black moods. It’s also hard to separate Gibson’s on-screen breakdown from his real-life domestic crisis, which surfaced just as the film completed shooting.

It sure looks like Gibson’s personal demons -- who can forget those tape-recorded phone conversations of him screaming and cursing at his wife? -- fueled his gut-level performance in “The Beaver.

‘Today Show’

The beaver puppet encourages Black to “blow up” his life and start over. Black follows the advice, giving his employees more freedom, inventing a wildly successful woodcarving toy and promoting his homespun philosophy on the “Today” show. Then his life unravels again, climaxing with a gory accident.

A subplot involving Black’s rebellious teenage son (Anton Yelchin) and the valedictorian of his high-school class (Jennifer Lawrence) is an unnecessary distraction.

Give Gibson and Foster (who directs and plays Black’s wife) credit for tackling challenging material that doesn’t fit into any of Hollywood’s neat marketing categories. “The Beaver” is a commendable failure.

“‘The Beaver,” from Summit Entertainment, opens tomorrow in New York, Boston, Washington, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and Austin, Texas. Rating: **

‘There Be Dragons’

Set against the backdrop of the 1930s Spanish Civil War, “There Be Dragons” is a sweeping tale of saints and sinners and the thin line separating them.

Written and directed by Oscar nominee Roland Joffe (“The Killing Fields”), it’s also a philosophical meditation disguised as a dramatic film. Like college philosophy classes, it can be both thought-provoking and mind-numbing.

Robert Torres (Dougray Scott) is visiting Spain to research a book about Josemaria Escriva (Charlie Cox), the founder of the controversial Catholic sect Opus Dei.

When he learns that his father Monolo (Wes Bentley) was a childhood friend of Escriva’s, it opens the door to a mysterious past that led Escriva to the priesthood and Monolo to become a spy during the brutal civil war. Torres also finds out about his father’s unrequited, ill-fated love for a beautiful Hungarian revolutionary (Olga Kurylenko) who fought against the fascists in Spain.

Though a few scenes take place in 1976, when Torres visits his father on his deathbed, most of the story is told in flashbacks that trace the divergent paths that Monolo and Escriva took.

Joffe can’t figure out how to turn this sprawling material into a compelling film. While the events are epic, the storytelling is not.

“There Be Dragons,” from Samuel Goldwyn Films, opens tomorrow across the U.S. Rating: **

What the Stars Mean:

****          Excellent
***           Good
**            Average
*             Poor
(No stars)    Worthless

(Rick Warner is the movie critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)

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