Madness, Dark and Light
By Carl Kozlowski
There are many ways in which a person can escape the hardships of life, but the way that is paradoxically hardest and easiest to do is to alter one’s mind. Whether through choosing to obliterate one’s consciousness with drugs and alcohol or a mental breakdown, tuning out reality is sometimes more appealing than facing it in the mirror.
Two major filmmakers, Jodie Foster and Woody Allen, explore insanity—or what appears to be madness—in decidedly different ways with their latest releases this weekend.
In the often-dark drama The Beaver, Foster directs and co-stars as the wife of a deeply troubled man played by Mel Gibson, who opts to fight his way back from depression by speaking to everyone he lives and works with via the use of a beaver hand puppet.
Meanwhile, with the delightful comic soufflé Midnight in Paris, Allen directs Owen Wilson as a neurotic Pasadena screenwriter set to marry a woman obsessed with Paris. While visiting and wondering why the modern-day changes are ruining the City of Lights, Wilson finds that while walking alone each midnight he seems to be transported back into the Roaring Twenties era of American expats and finds himself engaged in conversations with people like Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. He also finds temptation to embark on an affair.
Both films have their own distinct and ample charms, with The Beaver offering a strong portrait of a wife and mother named Meredith (Foster) who has steadfastly stood by her husband through his years of depression in an attempt to keep her family with two sons intact. When Walter (Gibson) finally becomes too hard to deal with and she gives him the ultimatum to get help or move out, he leaves for a hotel only to find a decrepit old beaver hand puppet in the dumpster where he’s tossing out a lifetime of memories.
He puts the beaver puppet on his hand and finds that suddenly it’s easy to express himself and to think happy thoughts, as long as he convinces everyone around him to play along with the idea that the beaver is what’s talking to them. The idea is fine with his youngest son and Meredith is cautiously optimistic that things are turning around. But his teenage son Porter (Anton Yelchin) believes his dad is worse than ever and starts acting out destructively, despite his own burgeoning romance with a girl who’s class valedictorian but wishes she could be anything else.
The Beaver has been the subject of media fascination since last fall, when Gibson’s real-life battles with alcohol and anger spilled into the news and forced the film’s studio to delay its release. It may seem that the film has fallen into having only an ironic, freak-show appeal—that of seeing an actor with apparent real-life mental issues playing a man who’s cracking up—and that the conceit of having a macho figure like Gibson speak through a hand puppet would be hopelessly contrived and even stupid.
But the amazing thing is that The Beaver works really well. Gibson is clearly working with raw emotions here at times, and Foster and Yelchin match him note for note. The film takes some incredibly dark turns in its final stretches, but they ultimately give the film an added level of power since life’s darkest moments come right before the light of hope emerges.
Allen’s Paris is decidedly lighter, yet impressive in many ways. After 30 years of making movies in New York City, the aging, angst-ridden auteur has found renewed vigor in filming in the capitals of Europe. Starting with the sublimely entertaining musical Everyone Says I Love You and continuing through 2008’s Oscar-winning hit Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Allen has found new tricks to go with his new locations.
Wilson easily slides into Allen’s nebbishy persona, infusing the filmmaker’s trademark neuroses with his own charmingly quirky delivery as he contrasts his Texan hipster persona with the highfalutin‘ elite crowd of the literary demimonde. The film has a fizzy kick as numerous A-list actors have a hoot playing famous figures. This adds mystery as the viewer is forced to figure out whether Wilson is really time-traveling or just crazy, and caps it all off with tasty layers of beautiful locations and witty dialogue.