First Night: The Beaver, Cannes International Film Festival

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Gibson and his co-stars upstaged by a puppet

The troubled movie star Mel Gibson failed to show up at the press conference for The Beaver, Jodie Foster's oddball film, which screened at the festival yesterday. That was hardly a surprise, given the controversy that has dogged him over his private life and his alleged anti-Semitism.

Foster, who co-stars with him, defended the actor (who appeared later in the day for the official screening) gamely enough. And the Cannes audience at the press screening gave the film a warm-enough reception.

But it is clear Gibson's rehabilitation is far from complete. The Beaver has done atrocious business in the United States and its international prospects look patchy. In the film, Gibson plays Walter Black, a "hopelessly depressed individual". He is CEO of a faltering toy company. When we first encounter him, he is near-catatonic and estranged from his wife (Foster) and two sons. Walter tries and fails to commit suicide – and that is the point at which the film enters the realm of the bizarre.

He starts wearing a beaver glove puppet that he has rescued from a skip. This puppet takes on a life of its own and Gibson speaks through it, affecting a London accent which sounds suspiciously like Michael Caine. Gradually, thanks to the beaver, Walter seems to shake off his depression. He re-engages with his family and helps his struggling toy company stave off bankruptcy.

Walter is an apt character for Gibson to play at this stage of his career. Like Walter, the Australian actor is in a dark place – at least as far as his career is concerned. He, too, needs to reach out to a public which is beginning to shun him. Gibson does not give a bad performance. In his own morose way, he is very effective at portraying a depressed white-collar businessman whose life is unravelling around him. The problem is Gibson has no lightness and no charm. An added problem is that Foster's movie is caught in a netherworld between comedy and dark, dysfunctional family drama. We never know whether she is trying to make us laugh or provide us with a case study of mental illness.

Kyle Killen's screenplay pulls in opposing directions, flirting with whimsy one moment, careering close to tragedy the next and then even touching on horror-movie conventions with one bloody scene in the final reel. It is never made clear what provoked Walter's depression or why he has fallen out with his teenage son Porter (Anton Yelchin).

Foster has a thankless role as Walter's long-suffering wife. It cannot be much fun being upstaged by a glove puppet. The increasingly annoying beaver at the end of Gibson's arm dominates every scene in which it appears. The richest part of the movie deals with Porter's courtship of a high school cheerleader (played by Jennifer Lawrence from Winter's Bone). But their scenes play like something out of a different film.

For all his recent travails, Gibson remains a formidable film-maker (Apocalypto was a tour de force) and a strong screen presence. He is simply not right for his role here, which is one key reason why The Beaver will struggle to burrow into audiences' affections.

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