Mr. Brooks | Film | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper
click to enlarge Lookin' killer: Kevin Costner
Lookin' killer: Kevin Costner

The hunger has returned to Mr. Brooks' brain. It never really left.

I'm dubious of a film that opens with such onscreen text that has all the calculated, simplistic foreshadowing of a cheesy graphic novel. And as Bruce Evans' serial-killer thriller, Mr. Brooks, unfolds, half of me was gratified to find my suspicions of this work's meager merits confirmed; the other half of me was irked to have to sit through it.

So, there I am in two minds, just like our Mr. Brooks. We catch up with his upfront side, Earl (Kevin Costner), at an awards dinner that quickly establishes this box-making businessman as the greatest guy in Portland. But riding home, lovely wife and shiny plaque in tow, we meet Marshall (William Hurt), Earl's other half, who, from the rear seat, purrs that the perfect end to such a tip-top evening would be a spot of sport murder. Marshall is Earl's hunger, his perpetual back-seat driver of the dark side of his soul. Together, they are the "Thumbprint Killer," a serial killer too clever to be caught.

One part of me thinks this film may be a psychological thriller, where we'll peer inside Earl's head and come to understand his bifurcated life and what drives an otherwise successful, law-abiding man to recreational killing.

Then Earl takes a meeting with Mr. Smith (Dane Cook), who has photos of Earl on his last double homicide, and surprises us all with his demand. Smith's blackmail offer: I'll stay quiet, if I can come along and do the next kill. It's a potentially clever angle, and the droll interplay of Earl and Smith (and Earl and Marshall) now suggests to my other half that we're in for a very black comedy that will tweak our fascination with murder as entertainment.

Wrong again. If only I had a third half, one that wouldn't have succumbed so foolishly to hoped-for narratives. Because all too soon, Mr. Brooks becomes a run-of-the-mill, old-style (by that I mean, early '90s) crime thriller. Debonair killer; Architectural Digest home; thumping electronic score; a splash of sex; and an eruption of subplots, four of them supported on Demi Moore's broad shoulders.

Moore portrays Tracy Atwood, the hard-assed, driven police detective, slogging through the search for the Thumbprint Killer; a messy divorce; office politics; and the recent escape of "The Hangman," yet another serial killer. Earl's bratty daughter has just dropped out of college, where -- get this -- there's a killer on the loose, and Mr. Smith is itchin' to kill. Gosh, somehow it all fits together.

It might have been cheesy fun, if the film's frontline gimmick, literally splitting the protagonist into two conversational halves, wasn't so stagy. The two-man monologue veers from distracting to silly to dull. A simple voiceover from Earl could have conveyed the same should-I-kill-or-should-I-go? dilemma.

Ultimately, the story resolves quite unsatisfactory amid much bloodletting, and with no further insight into our killer. Earl may be tormented by his twisted desires but we never see it or feel it. Neither Earl nor Marshall ever loses control, which is curious both dramaturgically and from an armchair-psychologist's point of view. Earl is such a control freak that he has a secret California Closet just for his serial-killing outfits, but his Mr. Hyde, Marshall, is just as rigid and orderly. Doesn't this guy have a wild-man alter ego? Where's the passion, the frenzy, the much-advertised hunger? Beats both halves of me.

Starts Fri., June 1.

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