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LOS ANGELES — Critics were mixed on Mel Gibson’s “The Beaver” at the start of the weekend — some found it a touching story of mental disassociation; others an ill-fitting mix of the quirky and the dour. Lovers and haters agreed, however, that they sometimes found it difficult to separate the star’s on-screen issues from his real-life ones.


As it turns out, viewers had the same problem — that is, if they even bothered to see the film.


Gibson’s turn as a depressed toy executive who turns to a puppet for help took in a dismal $104,000 on 22 screens, a per-screen average of under $5,000. To put that in lay terms, that means that in the markets the Jodie Foster film opened, very few people came out to see it. To put that in other lay terms, the average was lower than that for the recent opening of “Atlas Shrugged,” a movie so unpopular it prompted its producer to contemplate retirement. (For those who might wonder if the figures are misleading because “The Beaver” opened in only a limited number of theaters, the per-screen metric accounts for that; it’s essentially a measure of a movie’s box-office power adjusted for the size of its release.)


On Sunday, studio Summit was, interestingly, pointing the finger at its film more than its star. Domestic-distribution president Richie Fay told my colleague Amy Kaufman that he didn’t think the results were “as much a repudiation of Mel and his personal life as it is about a film with difficult subject matter” and suggested that a planned expansion later in the month may be more limited than previously thought. “As it turns out, I think the film is more of an art-house specialty kind of movie than a broader commercial film,” he said.


“The Beaver” was no doubt a difficult script, a dark comedy-drama with a tweener tone. Which is why, despite its darling status among Hollywood insiders (the script was atop the industry-sanctioned Black List and Steve Carell was once attached to star), it struggled for years to get made.


But the niche-film argument is also exactly what proves Gibson’s faded stock. A-list stars elevate art-house movies; they get us to see films we wouldn’t have ordinarily seen, from Brad Pitt in “Babel” on down. A pre-Malibu, pre-Oksana Gibson would have increased the popularity of this movie, especially with a performance as well regarded as his was. The Gibson we have today didn’t. It may have even dragged it down.


Gibson supporters might argue that mainstream America will go on to embrace “The Beaver” when it opens wider later this month. But the number of instances in which a film struck out with niche audiences and then went on to be a popular hit can be counted on one hand. Fay’s comments suggest that Summit isn’t banking on that, either.


Contrarians will also posit that the film was hurt by the lack of promotion on the part of its star, who continues to remain out of sight after last summer’s embarrassing alleged rants against Oksana Grigorieva — though the fact that he didn’t believe this a good moment to come back into the public eye itself proves the popularity point.


There are also those who’ll say that this was another case of the media hating on Mel. But it isn’t the media that stopped millions of Americans from seeing his movie this weekend. (Some would also say a more commercial action film, the kind we’re used to seeing Gibson in, would help, though he didn’t exactly reel ‘em in with “Edge of Darkness” — and that was before Oksana-gate.)


The Hollywood executives who don’t want to work with Mel — agency honcho Ari Emanuel, to name one who’s said so publicly — have been accused of unfairness and a lot worse. Commenters accused the Los Angeles Times’ “24 Frames” blog of worse too when we said after the Oksana tapes came to light that we believed Gibson’s mainstream career was severely damaged, or even over. Said commenters argued, with varying degrees of nuance, that this was a blinkered view and doesn’t reflect the American moviegoer. It turns out the American moviegoer feels pretty much the same way.


It’s likely that a well-coordinated prime-time apology and perhaps a directorial effort that doesn’t require putting Gibson’s face on a poster could be on the way in the not-too-distant future. That may or may not ingratiate Gibson with a broader public. But after this weekend, is there any evidence left to support the idea that Gibson is a bankable movie star, or that he’ll become one again anytime soon?

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