Throughout the eighties and early nineties Tom Hanks and Kevin Costner reigned as the James Stewart and Gary Cooper of their generation. Hanks oozed aw-shucks boyish charm; Costner radiated dignity and quiet authority. In an age of flash-in-the-pan pretty boys they seemed built to last as old-style Hollywood stars of the highest caliber.
Hanks has certainly had his ups and downs over the years but I don't think it's an exaggeration to call him America's most beloved actor. Even when one of Hanks' films flops, nobody holds him responsible for their failure. It's always "Charlie Wilson's War was underwhelming but Hanks was great!" or "Ladykillers was a disappointment but Hanks was hilarious!" Costner, on the other hand, has become synonymous with colossal failure and questionable judgment. From his legendary performance as a pee-drinking man-fish in Waterworld on through to this equally floptastic turn in Rumor Has It (or as Keith and his wife Stevie call it, Everybody Fucks Costner) the question most asked about Costner's bewildering oeuvre is "WTF?" followed by "What was he thinking?" But Costner experienced something of a modest artistic comeback last year with Mr. Brooks, today's entry in an ongoing, wildly erratic feature I like to call Guilty Pleasure Monday.
Costner's role in Mr. Brooks represents at once a radical departure from his usual screen persona and a sort of warped typecasting. In Mr. Brooks once again plays a salt-of-the-earth type: a respected businessman, loving and faithful family man and pillar of his community. Oh, and he's also a murderer controlled by evil imaginary friend William Hurt. But mainly he's a good guy. As the film makes painstakingly clear, Costner is no garden-variety thrill-killer: he's a cold-blooded murderer with a strong ethical code. He doesn't want to kill but he must. It's like any addiction or compulsion, from gambling to sex to drugs. Mr. Brooks makes this link even more pronounced by having Costner attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings to deal with his seemingly singular addiction.
(SPOILERS AHEAD) Mr. Brooks is consequently the story of a fundamentally decent man wrestling with demons internal and external. While getting his murder on old school one evening, Costner is discovered by amateur photography buff/deranged sicko Dane Cook (who replaced A.V Club favorite Zach Braff in the role), who makes him a Faustian bargain: he won't go to the police as long as Costner lets him tag along during his next murder. Yes, Costner has stumbled onto someone infinitely sicker and sadder than himself.
It's one of the film's most resonant sick jokes that Costner is incredibly paternal with Cook: patient, gently moralistic and keen to steer his wayward charge back to the straight and narrow path. Costner and Cook both excel in roles that take their finely crafted images into subversively dark places. The rah-rah frat-boy enthusiasm of Cook's stand-up shtick here becomes the depraved bloodlust of a pervert who has had his first taste of blood and can't wait for another fix. Cook has always been more than a little loathsome but here we're actively supposed to root for his violent death, something A.V Club readers (and let's face it, A.V Club writers) have been doing long before Mr. Brooks went into production. Every scene where Cook confronts Costner represents a tense power struggle: Cook holds all the cards yet Costner controls and dominates Cook purely through will, certainty and force of character.
In an even darker subplot, Costner discovers that he has apparently passed on the little-known "murdering gene" to his beloved collegiate daughter (Danielle Panabaker), who writhes around in daddy's lap in a scene with some of the queasiest Freudian undertones this side of the infamous sweater spree in Lord Love Of A Duck. Mr. Brooks reminded me a lot of Lord Love A Duck as well as Pretty Maids All In a Row, another great, overlooked black comedy about a terrific guy and model citizen who just happens to be an enthusiastic and prolific murderer.
In Mr. Brooks the compulsion to kill is a disease and an addiction that can be managed but never eliminated entirely. A pregnant Panabaker drops out of college and returns home after leaving a trail of corpses in her wake. Ever the loving father, Costner travels to campus wearing a ridiculous hippie disguise to clean up his daughter's mess.
Not all of the film's lurid conceits pay off: Demi Moore is dead weight as a multi-millionaire cop hunting down Costner while entangled in a messy divorce with her gold-digging, metrosexual soon-to-be-ex.
Like Point Break, Mr. Brooks plays its gleefully preposterous plot absolutely straight. The film's far-fetched twists and turns are imbued with a lunatic conviction. In the wrong hands this easily could have devolved into a winking, knowing, leaden camp debacle but the filmmakers seem blissfully unaware of the film's innate ridiculousness: they genuinely feel they've made a serious film about morality as seen through the prism of a part-time killer, his unwanted sidekick, blood-thirsty daughter and evil imaginary friend.
Then there's the strange, wonderful chemistry between Costner and Hurt, the film's post-modern answer to Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde. Hurt has reinvented himself over the past few years as an over-the-top heavy. His scenery-chewing turn here nicely complements his Oscar-nominated performance in History Of Violence. In the film's most transcendent moments Costner lets his mask of sanity slip and enjoys a long, lusty cathartic cackle alongside Hurt. It's raw, cathartic laughter that signifies that just for a moment Costner has stopped battling his demons and given into his dark side.
Mr. Brooks blurs the line between guilty pleasure and genuine goodness (to call it great would be a stretch) but it has a twisted energy and dark, moody power all its own. It may not be great art but I won't forget it any time soon. Incidentally, the DVD contains a deleted scene that reveals the origins of Hurt's character. DO NOT WATCH THIS SCENE. Nothing destroys a cult film's sense of wonder quite like literal-minded explanation of characters and relationships best left shrouded in mystery.