Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
July 2007

Splitting the bill

The cons cripple the pros in the schizophrenic 'Mr. Brooks'

Mr. Brooks
Director: Bruce A. Evans
Screenplay: Bruce A. Evans and Raynold Gideon
Starring: Kevin Costner, William Hurt, Marg Helgenberger, Demi Moore, Dane Cook, Danielle Panabaker and Ruben Santiago-Hudson
Rated R / 2 hours
Opened June 22, 2007
(out of four)

I wonder if Mr. Brooks was cobbled together out of two completely separate screenplays; because, like its titular character, the movie's personality is split in two.

On one hand, we have the driving force - the psychological tug-of-war between the two halves of Mr. Brooks' psyche. His successful businessman exterior (Kevin Costner) and his evil altar ego, Marshall (William Hurt), always at his side, lurking in his shadow, whispering in his ear about how much fun it would be to go and kill someone.

On the other hand, we have the clumsy subplot - a staple of Hollywood thrillers, but rarely so clumsy as this one, a story about the detective (Demi Moore) hot on Mr. Brooks' trail while struggling with an ongoing family crisis.

How one piece of a movie can be so compelling and smart, and the other so excruciating, boring and dumb, is beyond me. The dual-screenplay theory is all I've got. It's as if the central storyline wasn't quite enough for Whoever Makes These Types of Decisions, so they decided to go the mindless route and give it the old cop [out] subplot. I have no idea if this actually happened or not; maybe it all came from one pure, original idea. But it seems oddly broken in two.

The way the two plots converge (as they naturally must) isn't really essential to either one; it's just sort of convenient - and probably, when you think about it, not even that convenient. Moving on . . .

Serial killers have long been a favorite subject in movies and TV. Most of the time, we see them from the perspective of those who are chasing him (SE7EN, The Silence of the Lambs) or from that of the people and/or communities he's terrorizing (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween and all their imitators). But every once in a while we actually see them from their own point - or, in the case of Mr. Brooks, points - of view. But even in those cases, the objective is often satire or dark comedy - think American Psycho or Natural Born Killers.

In Mr. Brooks, the events are treated with the care of a normal, suburban character drama. Earl Brooks is the epitome of American success - he's a wealthy, well-respected entrepreneur with a doting wife (Marg Helgenberger), a daughter he adores and more than enough money and assets to retire comfortably with. And he hasn't killed anyone in years.

Until he finally cracks one night. Marshall - played with delightful deadpan persuasion by Hurt - has been in his ear all night. Think how much fun we'll have. And so he (they?) does it. He swears it's the last time. A young couple; no one he knows personally. ("Never kill anyone you know," he insists.) He knows the house, he knows how to get in and out. And in a chillingly executed sequence, we see the methodical genius behind his killings. You realize why he's never been caught. He's all too careful.

Except . . . remember when I said he hasn't done this a lot lately?

He makes one crucial mistake. He leaves the floor-to-ceiling windows partially open. It's late at night, so he may not have noticed. But as convenience would have it, an amateur photographer/scumbag (played surprisingly well, with anxious, jittery energy, by comedian Dane Cook) was taking pictures of the couple that night, as he often does when they're doing what they were doing. And so, using the alias "Mr. Smith," he takes a few snapshots - with plenty more locked somewhere safe, as protection - to Mr. Brooks as blackmail. He doesn't want money. He doesn't even want Mr. Brooks in his pocket. He just wants to go with Mr. Brooks when he does it again . . . he just wants to be along for the kill.

The film plays with the situation as if it were a basic moral conflict. It almost comes across like one of those '90s Michael Douglas movies where he was getting blackmailed for cheating on his wife or something. But instead, it's to be or not to be . . . a serial killer. The film is subtly captivating in the way it plays with Mr. Brooks' duality; Earl and Marshall play off each other like old friends, or enemies, who know each other all too well. In one early scene, when Marshall has been talking Earl's ear off trying to convince him to do it one more time, the film almost had a superhero effect; Earl takes off his glasses, a la Clark Kent, removing the exterior of his altar ego, and finally relents.

All of that is so effective that the rest of the film isn't merely boring or uninteresting - it's infuriating. It undermines the complexity and intelligence of the rest of the movie. Detective Tracy Atwood (Moore) is dealing not only with the murder of the young couple, but with another old case that is so stupidly placed, and imposes itself so awkwardly on the plot, that it almost couldn't have been part of the original idea for this movie. A clumsy subplot I can handle. But a complete farce like this? It's inexcusable. It doesn't even seem like it's directed by the same person.

Somebody owes Kevin Costner an apology - and William Hurt and Dane Cook too, for that matter. Because they had a great thriller on their hands, and through no fault of their own, it got ruined.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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