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At The Movies: Out of Character: Mr. Brooks ***

Kevin Costner made his name on playing good guys. Even though he started out playing morally ambiguous characters, like his spy in No Way Out, his biggest movies were during his “aw shucks” phase. Although Crash Davis in Bull Durham had a formidable dark side, his Ray Kinsella in Field of Dreams and John Dunbar in Dances with Wolves were enough to put Costner in that do-no-evil category of matinee idol. But that was then.

His career reached a high point and then went back down in a different direction; he was no longer leader of pack, his marriage fell apart and the films he directed, whether they were successful monetarily or not, were known as failures. A few years back he started building it back up slowly. The way he did it was by challenging himself as an actor. After his most recent turn in Mr. Brooks there should be absolutely no question that underneath the steely gaze and good-guy charisma is a versatile actor capable of going in different directions.

Costner’s work in the mostly mediocre Mr. Brooks is so good; in fact, it makes you wish his entire career had been spent working against type. He’s had his moments here and there where he’s played not-so-great guys, but underneath the darkness was always a profound goodness. Would that Costner’s career had taken him away from his status as golden-boy-turned-Oscar-winning-director towards more versatile projects where he didn’t have to be as admirable. He might have had a career more like Anthony Hopkins and less like Robert Redford.

Costner plays the title character as a very stable box manufacturer married to a pretty wife (Marg Helgenburger) by day and ravenous sociopathic serial killer by night. The twist is that he has an imaginary friend making him doing it in the form of William Hurt (who has to be the most compelling fake character ever). Mr. Brooks attends AA meetings in hopes of curing his relentless addiction, but occasionally he slips up.

After controlling it for two years, he lapses, due to the seductive voice of his imaginary friend. He makes his kill, carries off the modus operandi to perfection. Hot on his trail is uber-cop Demi Moore. She has her own problems in the form of a brutal divorce, subsequent lawsuit and, to make matters worse, a guy she helped lock up has escaped. She’s first on his list to kill.

There is another subplot involving Brooks’ daughter, but I’m afraid if I pile any more of the story on you’re going to have much the same problem as anyone watching the film would have: there is just too much happening at once to concentrate fully on one thing. With so many potential serial killers around, they almost cancel each other out.

Mr. Brooks is a perfect 10 if you’re like me and you have a high regard for really bad thrillers. It has everything a so-bad-it’s-good thriller needs: pretty people in their pretty clothes and their pretty houses doing awful things to other pretty people.

This one has a smartly written script that you don’t necessarily see coming from a mile away, like so many thrillers of late. The real reason to see it, though, is Costner, who is working hard to reinvent himself as a character actor, which is one of the only ways to survive growing old in Hollywood. He probably can’t ever go back to the “aw shucks” of yesteryear. And that’s a good thing.

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