There. So Mel Gibson and Britney Spears flew off to Costa Rica together recently.

No, it wasn't a naughty tryst. It wasn't a wacky celebrity skit on

Night Live

. It wasn't even a copy of People magazine sent through the office shredder and reconstituted like a Franken-story.

Nope, just one inhabitant of the celebrity

Truman Show

lending a hand to another denizen of the bubbled universe.

The two - accompanied by his wife and her father - had gone to vacation and to look at property. Mel already has a home there. And Britney certainly could use a refuge from the paparazzi - although, wouldn't you know it, the tabloids followed her there and snapped pictures of her swimming off Barrigona Beach.

It's not hard to figure out how Gibson, 52, and the 26-year-old Spears know each other - Blair Berk, defense lawyer to the stars, has helped both of them sort out their legal problems.

Berk declined to comment, as did Spears, and Gibson's publicist said Gibson would not be able to comment as he was out of the country.

But what are these two really doing together? According to those who know (who declined to be named for fear of angering the actor), Gibson and his wife, Robyn, reached out to Spears in February, around the time the songstress was committed to the psychiatric unit of the UCLA Medical Center. He was tortured by the idea that the pop star might end up dead, in part a casualty of the public's lurid fascination with her.

Says one informed source, "There was no religious overtones, no endgame other than trying to show her there's a way to live your life without being in the fishbowl and learning how to raise kids that way."

Indeed, unlike Suri Cruise or Jaden Smith, the seven Gibson kids have avoided becoming tabloid grist.

Gibson remains one of the most enigmatic figures in pop culture, the Jekyll and Hyde - no, the Sybil - of the movie world. He's been described as a brilliant director, a religious nut, an aging leading man, an anti-Semite, a mensch, a conspiracy theorist, a repenting drunk, and a ham. He certainly defies the famed dictum "the personal is political." Indeed, until

The Passion of the Christ

, few in showbiz had a problem with Mel, the person. He wasn't a nightmare on two legs, and he worked happily and closely with gays and Jews. It's just when he vocalized what was putatively in his heart - when he went ideological - that his public-perception problems began.

At some point, he became a figure on the celebrity recovery circuit, a last resort for famous folks who can't quite get it together.

Robert Downey Jr., now riding the

Iron Man

crescendo, had Mel to thank for giving him a job (as the star of

The Singing Detective

, which Gibson produced) in 2002 when he came out of rehab, after a year in prison and years of battling drug addiction. In an interview with a Florida paper, Downey recalled that "Gibson gave me a gift."

So is this recent trip to Costa Rica yet another act of Mel's altruism? It's hard to say. It's also hard to weigh which is more important for a world-renowned figure - private charity or public responsibility?

It's equally unclear whether he'll ever be truly accepted back into the entertainment community after the anti-Semitic comments he made during a 2006 arrest for drunk driving in Malibu. For those who viewed his

The Passion of the Christ

as hostile toward Jews, Mel's words seemed proof of his actual intentions.

The troubled Spears certainly needs help from someone who's not trying to exploit her.