On Movies: For Foster, 'The Beaver' is a film with bite

Jodie Foster with Riley Thomas Stewart (center) and Anton Yelchin in "The Beaver."

Mel Gibson has a line in The Beaver - well, more accurately, the titular hand puppet he gives voice to in a barmy Cockney accent has the line. It goes: "People seem to love a train wreck when it's not happening to them."

The irony of that observation is not lost on Jodie Foster, who cast her old friend in the dark comedy she directed and costars in, and who witnessed Gibson in the middle of a media maelstrom - his train wreck of a relationship with ex-girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva. The actor shared his troubles with Foster during production, and the infamous Gibson-Grigorieva telephone recordings became public as Foster was directing reshoots.

"There's this odd fascination with people's descents, and people having emotional struggles," notes Foster, whose film lifts Gibson's character, a toy company chief, from the pits of suicidal despair to his 15 minutes of fame, as the spectacle of a man talking through a rodent plush toy becomes an Internet sensation.

"That's a part of the movie, too," Foster says. "He becomes The Beaver and he becomes a phenomenon, and in part it's because people are fascinated with how crazy this guy is."

Whether people will turn out to see The Beaver, which opened Friday at the Ritz at the Bourse and Rave Motion Pictures at the Ritz Center/NJ (it goes wider next weekend), or stay away because of the Mel mess, Foster can't say.

"I just make the movies, that's kind of all I really know about," she explains, on the phone from Washington, D.C., not long ago. "I know that it's a worthy film, and I know that when people do go to see the film, they're struck by how it's exactly the opposite of what they thought it would be. It ends up being a very emotional experience for them. And . . . whether they were interested in Mel, or they didn't want to see a film with him in it, I think they'll recognize what an extraordinary performance it is. That's undeniable. So, whether it ends up on pay-per-view, or whatever, it doesn't matter, it doesn't change how powerful the experience of seeing the film is."

Foster, 48, had been wanting to film this odd and oddly affecting story since she read Kyle Killen's script several years ago. It has been 16 years since Home for the Holidays, Foster's sophomore directorial effort. Her debut, Little Man Tate, came out in 1991. There was something about the idea of a deeply depressed man brought back into the waking world - and back into the life of his family (Foster plays his wife, Anton Yelchin his son), thanks to a puppet he plucked from a Dumpster - that appealed to Foster immensely.

"He's a man struggling, and that's really what it's about - somebody who's struggling to stay alive and to want to live again," she notes. "And it was something that I couldn't stay away from.

"Every time you make a film - as a director, especially - there's a lot of psychological discovery, about why you're fascinated, why are you obsessed with it, why do you spend two years on something, why do you want to wake up at 3 in the morning and come up with ideas about it. Well, you do that because it has something to do with your life, personally, and helps you change in a more positive direction."

So, filmmaking as therapy? What was it, then, about The Beaver that touched Foster?

"Gosh, so many things. I think all of us have come into contact with depression in our lives, through our parents, or grandparents, or friends - or ourselves. Obviously, what Mel's character, Walter, is going through is much more clinical depression, much more serious, and certainly can't be dealt with by talk therapy alone. But I think all of us have had that experience, and especially - and this does sometimes sound cliched - but, you know, actors, artists, painters, we all do what we do because we like to ruminate, we like to think about tragic and dramatic things over and over again, in order to make sense of them.

"And when you spend a good portion of your day ruminating about things that are dark . . . it sets you apart, it makes you alone, it makes you somebody who is misunderstood and who longs to be able to be understood in some ways. . . . The ruminating process is really what turns somebody from being a good writer, or a good actor, into being an excellent one."

Foster, whose recent acting jobs include the children's fantasy Nim's Island, the revenge thriller The Brave One, and the hostage drama Inside Man, promises that it won't be another 16 years before her next turn as director.

"There are a lot of reasons why it took me so long to go from my second movie to my third. One was that I got caught up in 10 years of trying to make a movie that eventually didn't happen," she explains, referring to Flora Plum, a Depression-era circus movie. But there were also her children to raise, and her acting career.

"There are a lot of obstacles to making personal films," she adds. "They're the hardest movies to get financed, they're the hardest movies to cast, they're the hardest movies to be distributed. And I make personal movies. . . . They're the tough ones.

"But I've definitely reached a point in my life where I'm ready to do more directing and less acting. I can see, now, especially after this experience, which was such an amazing experience, and also an incredibly challenging professional experience, I can see that there's where I'm headed."

So, that said, what's next after The Beaver for director Foster?

"I have no idea," she responds, laughing. "No idea."

Movie-star sound bite, Part 1. In Cracks, set in 1930s England at a girls' boarding school, Eva Green plays the moody and theatrical swimming instructress adored by a clique of students. She smokes, she wears nice smocks, and she falls into a kind of sapphic obsession over a new enrollee from Spain (María Valverde).

Cracks, playing at the Ritz at the Bourse, was directed by Jordan Scott, daughter of Sir Ridley - whom Green worked with on his Crusades movie, Kingdom of Heaven.

The younger Scott, who hadn't met the French actress - best known for her work in Bertolucci's The Dreamers - phoned Green and offered her the role of Miss G, out of the blue.

"I'm absolutely awful and terrified in auditions," Green confesses, "so it was a thrill not to have to do that. . . . I don't really know how it happened, if she liked me in The Dreamers, or what. I was very lucky . . . to be offered such a challenging part. Very lucky."

Movie-star sound bite, Part 2. In Hesher, set in a working-class quadrant around L.A., Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a menacing, tattooed metalhead who inserts himself, uninvited, into the household of a family awash in grief. Rainn Wilson is the catatonic widower, Devin Brochu his troubled preteen son, Piper Laurie his dithering grandmother, and Natalie Portman a supermarket cashier with her own heavy issues to work through. Hesher opened Friday at the AMC Neshaminy, Ritz at the Bourse, and Rave Motion Pictures at the Ritz Center/NJ.

"A lot of people are going to go see this movie because it's a big, broad, funny character," says Gordon-Levitt, whose performance - punctuated with puffs of smoke and profanity - is 180 degrees from the nice guy he played in (500) Days of Summer.

"I love big, broad, funny characters, but what I really love is when you have a big, broad, funny character that also has layers underneath and has stories to tell. . . . All of the foundations of his personality, as the film goes on, get challenged. That, to me, is what makes it more than just a caricature, but a really fascinating human being to play."

Decide for yourself whether Gordon-Levitt's Hesher dude is funny or not.

Next up for the actor, who has been working in front of cameras since he was 6: The Dark Knight Rises, the Batman sequel in which he reteams with his Inception director, Christopher Nolan.

"It's going to be awesome," Gordon-Levitt promises.


Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies/.