Mel's Puppet Play

Some old favorites – Gandalf the Great and James Bond – are returning to the big screen. But can we stomach Gibson’s comeback – even speaking through a puppet – in “The Beaver?”

Recent days have brought some good news for movie fans, particularly those of us who spend too much time pining to see old magic revived on the big screen.

Ian McKellen, after some drama, finally signed on to recreate his role as the wizard Gandalf in the upcoming two-part version of “The Hobbit,” which also will boast a cameo by “Lord of the Rings” trilogy star Elijah Wood as Frodo Baggins. Daniel Craig is set to return as James Bond in the planned 23rd flick in the long-running spy series. And our PKE meters are detecting from director Ivan Reitman’s latest comments a modicum of hope we’ll someday see “Ghostbusters 3.”

It’s tidbits like these that serve as pop culture comfort food – fodder for a kind of a Hot Stove League for movie geeks during winter, which is traditionally short on good new flicks and long on awards-show vanity displays of triumphs past.

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But some morsels of movie news are enough to make you choke – or at least cause indigestion. We’re not quite sure how to swallow reports that “The Beaver,” starring the toxic Mel Gibson, is set to debut in March at the South by Southwest Festival.

As much as the public likes comeback stories, can we stomach Gibson back in the movies?

It seems almost impossible to separate the actor from the raging, disembodied voice heard on tapes last year, spewing vile epithets and threats in a personal and legal drama that’s yet to be fully explained or resolved.

Under ordinary circumstances, the conceit of the film – Gibson plays a troubled man who decides to communicate through a beaver puppet – would seem to be a hit-or-miss proposition, though with Jodie Foster co-starring and directing, chances are it’s a quality effort.

But given Gibson’s situation, the movie seems like a set up for one continuous punchline. Last month’s release of the trailer for the film spurred a variety of remixes using audio from the infamous tapes, purported to be of the “Mad Max” actor's rantings. (Check out one parody trailer here, via College Humor. We’re not embedding it – not only is the video NSFW, it’s probably not all that safe for home.)

Gibson’s woes, not surprisingly, spurred jokes from Ricky Gervais at the Golden Globes Sunday night.

"Our first presenter is beautiful, talented – and Jewish apparently. Mel Gibson told me, he's obsessed," Gervais said as he introduced Scarlett Johansson.

But Gervais trained more of his comic firepower on another scandal-ridden Hollywood figure, albeit one whose career is somehow still thriving: Charlie Sheen.

Gervais opened the show by promising "a night of partying and heavy drinking – or, as Charlie Sheen calls it, breakfast."

Sheen reportedly is still partying, even after his sordid episode with a porn star in the Plaza Hotel last year and copping a plea in a domestic violence incident.

None of that seems to matter all that much: the long-running mediocrity “Two and Half Men” is still a hit – and it’s ratings are actually up slightly this season, The Washington Post notes.

CBS Entertainment President Nina Tassler, speaking to TV critics late last week, said there is a “high level of concern” about Sheen’s off-screen difficulties. But, she added, “On a professional level, he does his job and he does it well. This show is a hit.”

Which is all that seems to matter – at least for now.

Gibson hasn’t logged a big box office success in nearly a decade. In addition, the invective-laden tapes make him far more poisonous than Sheen whose antics have been widely reported but apparently not captured on publicly available video or audio.

Time will tell if Gibson’s puppet act will work or whether Sheen will pull his own act together. But it’s clear that both are coming off as two big, sad jokes.

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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