Sunday, May 23, 2010

Mr. Brooks

 Have you ever seen a movie that you wish you could have edited yourself?  Or at least had some input into the writing process?  That's how I feel about Mr. Brooks, an interesting take on the serial killer motif that manages to shoot itself in the foot with poor acting and unnecessary use of Demi Moore.

Earl Brooks (Kevin Costner) is a successful family man with a daughter in college (Danielle Panabaker) and a doting wife (Marg Helgenberger).  He is the mild-mannered bespectacled Chamber of Commerce "Man of the Year," and he is a serial killer.  Brooks has an imaginary friend, Marshall (William Hurt), that serves as the voice for his blood lust.  Brooks is a fastidious killer, taking pains to select random victims, leave no physical evidence, and always stay in control.  Brooks is also known as the "Fingerprint Killer," thanks to his habit of leaving a single bloody fingerprint from each of his victims at the crime scene.  This is an unusual setup for a movie that follows a killer.  First and foremost, Brooks is the hero of the story.  Viewers are also very aware that Marshall is imaginary, so you don't have to worry about any A Beautiful Mind-style surprises.  Brooks' approach to serial killing is unique, too, as he treats it as an addiction and attends Narcotics Anonymous meetings on a regular basis.  Also, how odd is it for a movie to show a serial killer as a fully functional member of society?  The twist comes when Brooks gives in to his addiction and kills a couple that he has been fantasizing about for some time.  This couple happens to enjoy having sex with the curtains open; for the first time, Brooks has a witness to one of his murders.  The witness is a "Mr. Smith" (Dane Cook), an amateur photographer that likes to take pictures of the now late couple having sex.  Instead of turning Brooks in, though, Smith blackmails Brooks into mentoring him in the ways of murder.  Brooks doesn't like it, but he agrees.

That's the basic premise of the movie, and I think it's a refreshing take on the typical killer movie.  It's not a slasher and it's not a James Patterson-ish thriller.  It's a smart premise and I appreciate it.  You would think that would be enough plot for a movie, but two subplots are introduced as well.  The first is the case of Brooks' daughter, who has dropped out of college and returned home, pregnant.  She is followed soon by police from her college town; apparently, she is a suspect in a murder on her campus.  Brooks is able to spot flaws in her alibi and has the horrible realization that his daughter is a killer, too.  While not a necessary story, this is an interesting way to flesh out Brooks' character, giving him reasons to exist beyond his blood lust.  The second subplot involves the detective that is in charge of the "Thumbprint Killer" case.  The detective (Demi Moore) is an independently wealthy woman in the midst of a messy divorce.  Her story ties in a little more directly into the primary plot as the movie progresses, but that is basically what her character is all about.

This is a very uneven movie, which is likely due to the nature of director/co-writer Bruce A. Evans.  Evans has done some great work in his career, including writing Starman and the screenplay for Stand By Me.  On the other hand, he has also written the screenplay for Jungle 2 Jungle and wrote the story for Cutthroat Island.  The man is a little hit and miss.  He's also not much of an actor's director.  Demi Moore and Marg Hengenberger both give fairly wooden performances here, while Dane Cook is just obnoxious.  That might just be the character's personality, but it feels like he is trying to channel Brad Pitt's character from 12 Monkeys and he is failing miserably.  Costner and Hurt, on the other hand, are a lot of fun to watch.  They have genuine chemistry and Costner does a good job flipping the switch from the quiet Brooks to the creepy "Thumbprint Killer."  My favorite scenes in the move have just the two of them talking to each other.  The best line in the movie comes from Hurt, speaking of Mr. Smith: "Even if that guy was charming and funny, I still wouldn't like him."  I know.  I feel the same way about Dane Cook.  While he's not great with the lesser actors, Evans does a good job with the cinematography and some of the physical acting.  For instance, I like that Mr. Brooks wears glasses, but whenever he slips into his killer persona, he takes the glasses off.  It's not subtle, but it's a nice touch.  The main problem with the film is the Demi Moore subplot.  It is completely unnecessary and adds nothing of value to the story at large.  The daughter subplot isn't great, either, but it at least shows a different side of Brooks' character.  It would be very easy to make this movie into the story of a man that wears a mask in public, but is a monster in private.  Her subplot shows his soft side; it is not handled very well (and it pops up at unexpected times in the film), but is a novelty in serial killer characterization.

This movie should be better than it is.  I generally like Kevin Costner; the man is a charming actor, as long as he's not being overly ambitious.  William Hurt is, almost without exception, a high quality addition to any film.  Their chemistry is great here.  And yet, the movie doesn't focus enough on their relationship.  The story should be all about them, but attention is diverted to Demi Moore, Dane Cook, and Danielle Panabaker.  That isn't necessarily a bad thing, but the execution is terrible.  It is rare for a subplot to make such a negative impact in a movie, but it really illustrates what works well here and what does not.  If I had to assemble a "Director's Cut" of this movie, it would be about thirty minutes shorter and completely omit Moore's character.

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