An old filmmaking truism suggests that the best use of aging matinee idols is to cast them as villains. Even when past their prime, such actors still give off a certain glamour, and if they're bitter about their decadence in Hollywood's pantheon, their anger can serve the performance. If they retain a sense of humor about themselves, so much the better, as in Timothy Dalton's plummy bad guy in Hot Fuzz.
That reasoning helps explain why former heartthrob Kevin Costner would take the repugnant leading role in Mr. Brooks as a comeback film. Not that Costner has been "gone" – he provided a terrific, laid-back supporting turn in 2005's The Upside of Anger. His star has fallen since his Dances With Wolves heyday, possibly because his vaguely self-important aspirations as a filmmaker ran contrary to his regular-guy appeal in such films as Bull Durham.
You couldn't find a more "irregular guy" than the title character of director Bruce A. Evans' Mr. Brooks, a lionized businessman and activist in Portland, Ore., who admits to being "an addict" at occasional AA meetings. Earl Brooks won't disclose that his addiction is murder and that he's never been suspected as being the notorious "Thumbprint" killer. Whenever Mr. Brooks focuses on the killer's multiple lives and personalities, the thoughtful, surprising script (by Evans and Raynold Gideon) proves likely to jump-start Costner's career. But when the focus shifts to co-star Demi Moore, it's like seeing the TV station changed to a lame FX network cop show.
Despite having a loving wife (Marg Helgenberger) and daughter (Danielle Panabaker), Mr. Brooks only admits his true feelings to his confidant Marshall (William Hurt), who happens to be a figment of his imagination. While Brooks agonizes over his murderous impulses and recites the serenity prayer, Marshall spurs him to give into temptation with a kind of amoral pragmatism. He's like the personification of the devil-in-the-ear who urges an alcoholic to take a drink.
Mr. Brooks' care in committing murders helps keep suspicion from falling on him. A problem occurs when a stranger calling himself "Mr. Smith" (comedian Dane Cook) appears at his office with evidence of a killing, but rather than blackmail Brooks for his money, he insists on being a protégé in murder. Brooks' cool self-control and Smith's scuzzy energy create a strange dynamic. Is Brooks "better" than Smith, because he feels guilt for committing atrocities?
When Costner puts on Mr. Brooks' ordinary, 1950s-style businessman pose, it seems a little phony. With bow tie and big glasses, he nearly minces in his movement and delivery. His work proves far more complex as his "real" self, alternating between bloodlust, a tormented conscience and the need for emotional control. When a murder plot comes close to him, Brooks' love of and sense of duty to his family become an unexpected part of the mix.
Unquestionably, Costner and Hurt appear to be having a blast while acting out conversations that take place in Brooks' head (even though Hurt is in the same scenes as other actors). When meeting Smith on a rainy street, Brooks suggests that he drive over to pick him up. Marshall replies that maybe Smith will get killed crossing the road, saving them some trouble. There's a beat, and Costner and Hurt laugh together, more like friendly brothers than a demon and his victim.
Overly concerned that the film include a conventional hero, Mr. Brooks offers us Tracy Atwood, who strains credulity by being a multimillionaire homicide detective who looks like Demi Moore. Whenever the Atwood track takes over, the film becomes less credible and more clichéd. Gum-chewing Atwood tails witnesses based on the flimsiest of "hunches" and talks tough to intimidate suspects like Moore's auditioning for an "NYPD Blue" revival.
Mr. Brooks even gives Atwood an escaped killer for a grudge, and Evans tries too hard while constructing show-offy action scenes that feature deafening gunshots and flashy cinematography. It's like Mr. Brooks the film has a split personality, and a dumber, less-confident movie periodically takes over. Perhaps that makes the Demi Moore plot the underachieving Mr. Hyde, with Costner's side of the story serving as an intriguing Dr. Jekyll.