There’s an episode of “Friends” where Monica gives Chandler grief because he’s so obviously this completely different person when he’s at work compared to how he is when they’re alone or with their other friends. He laughs annoyingly at bad jokes and such and she doesn’t care much for “Work Chandler.”
I use this little trip into seminal ’90’s sitcom territory to illustrate the idea that we all relate to those around us in different ways. We’re this way with our families, we’re that way with our coworkers and so one. In the best of cases we’re able to leave our work at the office and enjoy our family and friends when we’re with them instead of allowing things to spill over.
The new movie from director Jodie Foster, The Beaver, is about a man who not only can no longer draw emotional dividing lines but has lost much of the ability to relate to the people around him in any capacity. Mel Gibson stars as Walter Black, whose emotionally crippled and lacking any way to break out of the rut he’s in. Ostracized and eventually kicked out of the house by his wife (Foster) he accidentally discovers a puppet of a beaver and finds he can use this supplementary persona to talk to his wife, kids, coworkers and others more easily as long as he funnels all interactions through the puppet. The journey doesn’t end there, though, as Walter eventually has to bring it back to a human level and stop using his hand-held surrogate as a go-between with everyone around him.
The poster for the film is pretty simple and understated, showing just Gibson sitting on a front step looking more than a little discouraged but with the beaver puppet on his arm and at his side. Below the title treatment there’s the copy “He’s here to save Walter’s life,” with the “he” in that sentence referring of course to the beaver of the title. Lots of open space allows for the glum nature of Walter’s disposition to come through, showing he feels isolated and alone but for his one manually-operated friend.
The movie’s trailer presents a pretty compelling story. We start by seeing Walter has been kicked out of the family home because he’s suffering from some sort of deep depression. But then he finds the titular beaver puppet and begins using it as a surrogate for his personal interactions both with his family and at work, eventually finding that he can’t hide behind that shield forever.
The trailer, I think, really shows what a fine actor Gibson continues to be as well as what a fine performance Foster turns in here. It hits most of what I’m assuming are the movie’s key story points and shows the basic conflicts and relationships that are going to drive the story forward throughout the film.
The official website opens by playing the trailer and that’s also the first section once you close that video player. There’s a “Gallery” that has about eight stills, including a couple of behind-the-scenes shots, a “Story” synopsis section and a list of “Theaters” that the film is or will be playing at.
If there’s a Facebook page for the movie it’s not linked to on the official site and a search didn’t return one. Perhaps this was spiked as an online promotional tool for fear the conversation there would turn because of the controversial nature of Gibson’s actions, which we’ll get to here shortly.
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
There was actually some advertising done for the movie with a TV spot produced and released that starts out by introducing us to Walter and then his beaver puppet. It’s certainly more upbeat than the trailer, showing lots of warm fuzzy moments and familial reconciliation in place of much, if any, anguish and angst. So the goal here seems to be to sell the movie to the masses as an uplifting feel good flick when the rest of the campaign positions it as anything but that.
Some online advertising was done as well that featured the poster key art but not much else, at least in terms of what I’ve seen.
Media and Publicity
I’m not going to get into the whole media circus that’s surrounded Gibson for the last several months other than to reiterate what Steve Zeitchik said (Los Angeles Times, 12/2/10) around the time of the initial marketing materials’ release, which is that the sudden announcements of dates (Hollywood Reporter, 12/2/10) and more caused a lot questions in lots of people’s minds about how Summit was going to deal with all the problems his behavior had caused in the press.
Surprising the movie was announced as one of those that would be premiering at SXSW 2011. That’s an odd choice since it’s not a movie that’s particularly attuned to the geek crowd that conference usually draws but considering it’s also one that isn’t normally attended by talent – traditionally there aren’t the same sort interview opportunities as at other festivals – it kind of makes sense since Gibson’s absence wouldn’t be as odd. It’s also pretty much the only festival type of shindig that was available at this point before the movie’s scheduled release date.
The official release date was moved back (THR, 2/8/11), partly to give the studio more time to see what the word-of-mouth coming out of that SXSW screening winds up being. The initial reactions from the screening there were pretty mixed, with variations on the word “tone” being used an awful lot by people who may have been taken aback by a more serious take on the material than they were expecting.
Eventually there was a substantial feature on Foster (THR, 3/16/11) where was able to address head-on the movie’s long production history (it began as a broad comedy with Steve Carell attached) and, most importantly, the issues with Gibson and the problems he’s faced in the last several months. In that piece she steadfastly stood by Gibson as a friend and actor while also acknowledging some of the problems he has created for himself.
It was later announced (LAT, 4/14/11) that the movie would appear at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, something that was a bit of a surprise given the movie’s history and the uncertainty surrounding who would and wouldn’t be available for the screening there.
Without Gibson to take on much if any work in this regard Foster continued to be the public face of the publicity, talking later on about his absence from the circuit (LAT, 4/25/11) and what it’s meant for her and the movie.
Let’s try, for the sake of objectivity, to move past what Gibson did or didn’t do and what sort of harm his actions have had on the actor’s perception among the the general movie-going public as well as within the industry. Seriously, let’s try to put that to the side and judge the marketing on its own merits.
When the first photo from the set was leaked showing Gibson running with the beaver puppet on his hand and people started to talk about the story I think a lot of people, myself included, thought this was going to be one of his mugging-to-the-camera comedies. Then when the marketing officially started it became clear that this was not going to any sort of light-hearted material but instead be a wholly depressing character portrait. The trailer sets that tone pretty clearly, as does the poster. The site isn’t all that fully featured, unfortunately, and the TV advertising differs in tone quite a bit, playing the movie as a redemptive love fest.
All in all if this were free of Gibson’s personal baggage I think we’d be talking about this movie in the same manner as many other small dramas starring actors who were a huge draw 15 years ago but whose stock has dropped significantly in the interim. It looks interesting and the controversy will certainly give it at least a little bit of a “curiosity factor” boost its first weekend but that’s likely to be it.