Call it CPR for a career in need of emergency resuscitation.
After his much-aired telephone rants — which managed to offend and appall every known demographic, and then some — Mel Gibson’s career, I think we can all agree, is on life-support … with someone standing by to pull the plug.
Celebrities deal with career meltdowns in different ways. DUI poster boy Nick Nolte thumbed his nose at the paparazzi and got on with business. Paul Reubens and Michael Richards went underground after their public embarrassments. Director-drag queen Lee Tamahori, arrested for soliciting an undercover officer, took a four-year hiatus. Hugh Grant did the chat show circuit and made a good act of contrition.
Shoplifter Winona Ryder ‒ back, sort of, as the has-been ballerina in “Black Swan” ‒ did her community service, took two years off, and then gradually reinserted herself into the limelight with low-profile performances in independent films no one saw.
Gibson’s novel rehab program: a quirky drama in which his character’s on-screen breakdown mirrors his real-life one.
In “The Beaver,” directed by and co-starring long- time friend Jodie Foster, Gibson plays Walter Black, who is described as “a hopelessly depressed individual” whose road back includes the furry hand puppet of the title. Struggling to understand what Dad’s going through, his young son makes him a papier-mâché brain. “Mom says yours got broken.”
Sound a little like Elwood P. Dowd? You remember Elwood. He’s the Jimmy Stewart character in “Harvey,” the classic comedy about a good-natured dipsomaniac and his imaginary rabbit friend. The big difference is that the Stewart vehicle is a celebration of eccentricity and the therapeutic benefits of pink elephants. “I’ve wrestled with reality for 34 years, Doctor,” Elwood tells a shrink. “And I’m happy to state I finally won over it.”
Gibson’s film is darker in tone; it’s about the road back from acute depression fueled by alcohol.
Echoing our sentiments, Black’s teen-age son asks if the “prescription puppet” is a joke.
“No, it’s a fresh start,” his father replies.
Unlikely. Audience reaction Wednesday to the film’s debut at South by Southwest festival in Austin ranged from mixed to skeptical. Foster herself acknowledged the film entered distribution purgatory after Mel’s ugly tirades went viral. “All sorts of stuff happened after the film was finished that threw our release into a crazy pattern,” she said.
Further fueling speculation that Gibson harbors a career death wish: He chose the night of the SXSW premiere to turn himself in for booking on a misdemeanor battery charge.
Provided the (public relations) river don’t rise, “The Beaver” will open in select markets May 6.