A film review by Craig J. Koban
2007, R, 120 mins.
Earl Brooks: Kevin Costner / Marshall: William Hurt / Det. Tracy Atwood: Demi Moore / Mr. Smith: Dane Cook / Emma Brooks: Marg Helgenberger / Hawkins: Ruben Santiago-Hudson / Jane Brooks: Danielle Panabaker / Capt. Lister: Lindsay Crouse
Directed by Bruce A. Evans / Written by Bruce A. Evans and Raynold Gideon
I will start by review of MR. BROOKS by saying something rather blunt:
Gary Cooper would have made a horrible Nazi.
Okay…hear me out.
I have always been a staunch Kevin Costner apologist. He has a sort of easy-going, restrained charm and charisma. He will never be remembered as an actor of broad range (key point: ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES, where he feebly tried to approximate an English accent…yikes!), but he has always infused in his roles an innate earnestness, likeability, and soft spoken vitality. He has made some of the best films of the last 20 years (FIELD OF DREAMS and DANCES WITH WOLVES) and has been in some duds (DRAGONFLY and 3000 MILES TO GRACELAND comes immediately to mind). Yet, Costner is kind of an appealing actor the way Gary Cooper was.
I think that the comparison has merit and weight. Cooper himself was noted as an actor that will always be personified with playing to his strengths, which in his case was an understated acting style that contains equal parts stoicism and introverted intensity. This, of course, made him a legend in the western genre and allowed for him to achieve the level of Hollywood icon. However, no one would ever take Cooper seriously if he attempted to play opposite of his innate strengths as an actor. Cooper was at his best making Gary Cooper films. There is something to be said about actors taking risks and going down new creative territory with their careers. However, there just reaches a point where one has to be realistic with expectations.
Honestly…would anyone have ever taken Cooper seriously as a vile and repugnant character like...say...a Nazi?
This builds, of course, to my main reservation with MR. BROOKS, an interesting and frequently intriguing – if not mishandled – new thriller. The film has a kind of odd mixture of being absolutely implausible and genuinely tense and creepy. It has few dull moments and has a title character that plays captivatingly as a Jekyll and Hyde dual personality that is constantly at odds with one another. As a psychological thriller, MR. BROOKS is both absurd and strangely entertaining; it’s one of those films where, with the right mindset, you are able to look beyond its sometimes ridiculous plot developments and simply go with it. Unfortunately, the whole enterprise is done in by the fact that it seems to typify how bad miscasting can hurt a film overall.
In its case: Kevin Costner is cast as a schizophrenic serial killer.
Costner, despite what other critics have said in the past, is a good actor that has fuelled a decent career based on his affability and low-key charisma. He has played some of the most likeable characters in the past, and even when he played somewhat against type as anti-heroes (like a jail convict with violent impulses in Clint Eastwood’s vastly underrated A PERFECT WORLD, or as a drunk in 2004’s THE UPSIDE OF ANGER, his best performance), he still maintained a plausible screen presence. Yet, plausibility is precisely what Costner lacks here as the title character in MR. BROOKS. Within the film’s otherwise chilling and shocking first few minutes, I found it next-to-impossible to buy Costner has a severely mentally deranged sociopath. He is just severely out of his element here.
I not sure why he not only agreed to star in the film, but co-produce it as well. Perhaps the real problems with his work in MR. BROOKS is it the execution of the character itself. As the film sort of spirals down towards one silly and convoluted plot twist after another, I think that the performances should be self-aware and play up to the film’s overabundance of contrivances. That’s Costner’s main problems because, throughout the film, he never seems to have a real clue as to how to play this nutcase.
He plays Mr. Brooks with an everyman type of edge when he really should have gone for broke and portrayed him with a lunatic spirit and passion. Instead, Costner plays Brooks as the actor has portrayed most of his parts, which is all wrong. Beyond that, he seems to fail to acknowledge the sheer madness of the film’s story and instead of hamming it up for some campy, dark laughs, he lurks into a self-indulgent level of seriousness with the part. The film is a parade of intentional and unintentional laughs. Costner’s Brooks is so somber and stern in the role that he seems to forget to have fun with it. You also never once buy Costner as a sleazy and frightening killer.
I mean...was Christopher Walken not available?
Most multi-millionaires have exciting hobbies outside of work. Earl Brooks takes it one step further. In his regular life, he is a fifty-something businessman that has made his enterprise from a nickel and dime organization to one that deserves a rank in Forbes. Life at the beginning of the film could not be better for the affluent and well-off entrepreneur. He has just been voted as “Portland’s Man of the Year”, is adored by his staff and fellow collogues, and has a gorgeous wife, Emma (Marg Helenberger, still an complete babe at 48), who is as loving and adoring as any man wishes his wife to be. Earl also has a cute-as-a-button 18 year-old daughter, Jane (Daniel Panabaker) who has just recently left the nest for her freshman year at college.
Brooks has all of the spoils of any rich man as well. His home is an architect’s wet dream. It even has a special studio where he can engage in his love of making pottery. Earl has a really good best friend in the form of Marshall (the great William Hurt) who likes to appease the darker side of him from time to time. Marshall has a particular thirst for trying to convince his buddy to partake in his favorite extracurricular activity:
You see, Earl is not only wealthy philanthropist, but he is also a deranged serial murderer know as “The Thumbprint Killer” by the press. And Marshall is not really a flesh and blood confidant; he is Earl’s eerie conscience, a hellish and sickening alter-ego that communicates to Earl whether he likes it or not. To Marshall, killing is as natural of a high as cliff diving, and he miraculously is able to convince Earl to commit murder again and again.
We, the audience, see Earl speak with the lecherous Marshall, but no one else around him in the movie sees Marshal, nor can they hear their conversations. One night after Marshall convinces Earl to drop his wife off, Earl proceeds to go to his next victim, pleading with Marshall that it will be his “last.” Earl is a smart, ruthless, and painstaking killer. He never commits one out of passion. He uses the Internet to research his prey as thoroughly as possible before the inevitable slaughter. However, he makes one large mistake on his last mission: he kills the couple in question with the window drapes open and a creepy voyeur named Mr. Smith (Dane Cook) snaps some pictures of Brooksie in the act. Whoops.
What then happens is kind of fascinating. Instead of running to the cops, Mr. Smith approaches Earl and asks him for a deal. Either he lets him come with him on his next kill or he takes the pics to the cops. Also, if Earl kills him, the photos will leak. Caught in a corner, and at the criticism of Marshall, Earl takes the deranged Mr. Smith with him on his next mission. However, Smith is a real hot head and is not content with Earl’s patient style of research.
Meanwhile, Earl has more problems in the form of Police detective Tracy Attwood (the rather wooden Demi Moore, as out of her element as Costner is), who is trying to capture the Thumbprint Killer once and for all. She has her own problems as well. She has to deal with a nasty divorce that could cost her millions (she is worth $60 million…don’t ask) and a criminal she put in prison is now on the loose and wants her dead. Beyond Detective Atwood, Earl is faced with another real challenge when his daughter abruptly returns home from college because she became pregnant via her loser boyfriend…or is she just saying that?
If there is one element that I did like about MR. BROOKS then it would be the character dynamic between Earl and Marshall. At first, its an oddly stylistic choice to see them have conversations in front of characters without anyone asking Brooks why he’s talking to thin air, but once established the interaction works. It's worthy to note that Brooks himself is kind of a sad and tortured killer. It is his hellish split personality, Marshall, that coaxes him to kill all of the time. I also liked William Hurt, who is perfectly cast as Earl’s unhinged alter ego, and he has a brilliantly whack-out intensity. The film also has a wanton appreciation for sensationalistic sleaziness and violence, and it thankfully never tones down the underlining material. The film was co-written and directed by Bruce A. Evans, who is a million miles removed here from his last effort, the lackluster and monumentally dreadful cop comedy, KUFFS.
Conversely, no matter how much maddening thrills and entertainingly stupid logic the film offers up, the narrative is an over-indulgent mess. MR. BROOKS suffers from too many sub-plots vying for the spotlight. The focus should be on the psychosis of Brooks and instead we are force fed mournfully contrived side stories about Moore’s ex-husband and the criminal that she once put away and is now stalking her. Moore herself is also never convincing as a tough as nails cop. Also, Earl’s daughter seems a victim of being a plot machination (her arc can be seen a mile away). We are also offered up a groan inducing shock ending which does not have the nerve to be real and instead is shown as a cheap, manipulative fake ending. And finally there is Costner as Brooks, the film’s largest flaw, who never is as scary as he should be. Ironically, Hurt himself possesses the necessary evil gravitas and theatricality to pull the part off competently. Costner, sadly, does not.
If you are willing to take a Grand Canyon-sized leap of suspending your disbelief and can see Kevin Costner as a psychotic, multi-personality-plagued murderer, then MR. BROOKS will be a fiendishly thrilling guilty pleasure flick. The film is stylish, disturbing, and has a genuine level of disregard to logic and reason, which could have elevated it to the status of a “so bad, it's good” film. Yet, MR. BROOKS is unfortunately done in by the presence of far too many redundant and ill-conceived sub-plots and a moronic level of insipid story revelations. Because of that, the film becomes very funny, but not in a dark, macabre kind of way. Lastly, Costner just can’t at all be taken seriously as a homicidal maniac. Being the Gary Cooper-style actor of his generation, he should have known better that Cooper himself would have known that he was more convincing playing one of the good guys than the bad.