According to some, we live in an age of moral relativism, and Mr. Brooks, a clever script with mediocre performances, explores that concept with nicely honed dash of irony. Our anti-hero, the eponymous Mr. Brooks, aka Earl, is affluent, pro-life, pro-family, and so devoted to his wife (Marg Helgenberger) and daughter (Danielle Panabaker) that the idea of being caught in his secret life as a serial killer is distressing to him mostly because it might embarrass those ladies.
Earl’s just been voted man of year in his native Portland, Oregon. Unbeknownst to everyone present is that it’s also, more or less, his two-year anniversary at AA. He doesn’t have a substance abuse problem, per se, but he has found that the support of that group in fighting his actual addiction, that would be the serial killing, has kept him on the straight and narrow. And fortunately, when he introduces himself there as an addict, no one asks for specifics. It’s on the way home from that awards ceremony that his alter ego, Marshall (William Hurt), starts goading him back into his life of crime. It works. And soon a young and lovely couple that Earl spied salsa dancing are shot dead while enjoying another sort of couple’s sport. Meticulous in the, ahem, execution of his murders, he leaves no clues except for his specific M.O., a complete vacuuming of the crime scene, digging out the slugs from the wall, and the victim’s thumbprints in blood, this time on a lampshade. This time, though, he made one tiny mistake. He left the curtains open, perhaps, he opines to Marshall, because he really wants to get caught so that he can finally stop killing. Earl, it seems, is conflicted about his hobby on more than a what-would-the-neighbors-think level.
Enter Detective Tracey Atwood (Demi Moore). She’s been on Earl’s trail since the beginning, though she only knows him as the Thumbprint Killer, of course. Delighted to have another crack at bringing this serial killer to justice, she’s less thrilled to be served a subpoena by her unfaithful, money-grubbing, soon-to-be ex-husband during her first visit to the crime scene. Things get worse for Atwood when one of the more sadistic serial killers she’s put away busts out of prison with a vow of vengeance on the cop who sent him away.
Meanwhile things are not exactly going Earl’s way, either. Aside from starting up again with the killing spree, his daughter has returned unexpectedly from her freshman year at college, mid-semester, with the announcement that she’s dropping out to join the family box-making business. There’s more to that story and plenty distressing, but before Earl can quite process that, he discovers the price of his mistake with the curtains. That would be someone calling himself Mr. Smith (Dane Cook), who doesn’t want to turn Earl in to the police, nor does he want to blackmail him for mere cash. No, he wants Earl to include him in on the next murder. Aside from Earl not really wanting to kill again, there’s the fact that Mr. Smith is a doofus, which irks Earl.
This is a story that depends on a curious assortment of coincidences that somehow work if you don’t think about it too hard. Or believe in the hand of fate. The biggest stumbling block is the device of having the two warring factions of Earl’s personality sparring verbally on screen. What could and should have been an interesting psychological insight plays more like the cheap expository device that it actually is. Blame the actors. Hurt, puckish and giggling like a schoolgirl, is better at scowling indifference. Costner goes through the motions with technical perfection, including the swoon dance he does after killing that lovely salsa-dancing couple, but even in Earl’s moments of greatest anguish, there is no real sense of emotional investment by the actor playing him. As for Moore, she has one expression throughout, but it’s one of being ticked-off, so it fulfills the context of her character’s storyline. Her efforts at action sequences are less successful, with even a climactic shootout coming across as tedious and not a little annoying. Cook is a big shaggy dog and nothing more.
MR BROOKS is the driest sort of satire, undercut by its shortcomings, but not enough to take down the film as a whole. Instead of being a great film, it is rendered merely an interesting one.