2007Director: Bruce A. Evans
Cast: Kevin Costner, William Hurt, Demi Moore
B+ / D- (Take Your Pick)
ad the extraordinarily kitschy thriller Mr. Brooks opened in theaters in, say, 1992, it would have stirred quite the scandal. Imagine it: new Oscar darling Kevin Costner as a self-made business guru on the outside (the most prominent American fantasy of the 1990s), a self-hating serial killer on the inside. The insufferably highbrow William Hurt as his slimy, primal alter ego. The starlet Demi Moore as the handily post-feminist detective who pursues him. They collect for a deliberately seedy, sleazily noirish riff on serial-killer camp with a running gag that breezily compares murder with alcohol abuse.
The Hollywood commercial establishment of the era would certainly never have let the movie see life, but to imagine the simultaneous shock and outrage it may have inspired is nonetheless priceless. But at very last check, the year is 2007, the former superstars no longer qualify for that title, and Mr. Brooks is, well, weird. The movie alternates between light amorality, wacko psychodrama, and its most persistent persuasion, full-throttle B-movie camp. It’s unclear which mode was the intended one.
Because Mr. Brooks is one of the most thoroughly entertaining studio movies this year, I’m inclined to believe the creative paradigm behind it understood the inherent awfulness of what it was producing and decided just to gun it. The presence of former name talent, however desperate these days, lends credence to this idea, the cast perhaps an invite-only gala of last-generation stars who banded together in the name of antiquated pop culture and maybe of simply having a good time. Appreciably less supportive of this theory is my somber discovery that the writer-director Bruce A. Evans, whose name I did not recognize when it showed up on the credits, was a writer on Jungle 2 Jungle and Cutthroat Island.
Without the benefit of judging the film on the basis of what it intended to do, normally a fair critical benchmark (though another new movie, Hostel: Part II, throws that criterion into a tailspin), I’m left only with superlatives to tap into its excesses. In that spirit, Mr. Brooks is frantically silly and somewhat degenerate trash, but it’s about as genuine as that comes—a Starship Troopers rather than a Catwoman. Basically, it’s the best movie Paul Verhoeven never made.
Let me describe the plot, if more for my amusement than yours. Mr. Brooks (Costner), whose surname is preferred even by his wife (a poor, poor Marg Helgenberger), has just been named an apparently prestigious organization’s man of the year, and he seems a very decent man, the type whose secretary serves with a firm sense of loyalty rather than simple duty. He also happens to be what the media calls the Thumbprint Killer, named that way because (in a hilariously generic touch) he leaves thumbprints in his victims’ blood behind at crime scenes. He had quelled his hunger for murder for two years, we learn, but finally his shoulder demon (Hurt, whose dark chemistry with Costner is a minor miracle of its own) convinces him to murder an attractive couple with a thing for very loud sex with the curtains open.
It doesn’t occur to Mr. Brooks, or maybe it does, that such couples attract the attention of spectators in tightly packed big-city districts like Portland (the movie’s reluctant setting), and, sure enough, a morally gray engineer across the way catches his misdeed on film. The engineer, played by Dane Cook (yes, really), says he won’t go to the police if Mr. Brooks will let him in on his next murder. Our wayward antihero doesn’t have much of a choice but to comply, despite a promise to himself that this murder was to be his last.
That much is pretty generic, but give Mr. Brooks credit for its subplots, which are outrageous both in scale and sheer quantity. One tells of the detective on the case (Moore)—and of her theatrical divorce, and of her bombastic encounters with an escaped strangler who she put away some time before. Another follows Mr. Brooks’s college-age daughter (Danielle Panabaker), who just mysteriously returned home from school with a secret or two of her own. The film has the audacity (genius?) to suggest that she might have inherited her father’s penchant for blood, including an 11th-hour development that (probably intentionally) got an audible laugh from the crowd.
Mr. Brooks, dimly lit and routinely shot, is not much to look at, and even as tongue-in-cheek camp, it’s still fairly depraved. The movie’s embrace of jazzed-up violence is a dubious trademark, and the actors certainly don’t feel the need to earn their paychecks. And even as no one will mistake this for quality product, as thoroughly dishonorable as it manages to be, I can’t help but to make out a gleam in its eye. Either this is the most subversively clever movie so far this summer, or Bruce A. Evans (ethnocentric Disney movies be damned) is very good at packaging his crap.
Mr. Brooks is currently playing in wide release.