"Mr. Brooks" is cleverly conceived and professionally executed and to hell with that. It's a serial killer movie in the dime-a-dozen era of serial killer movies, with the selling point being that the murderer is played by a movie star.
This way you'll like the guy.
"Mr. Brooks," of course, is far from the only movie to bank on the appeal of its villain; some of the cinema's most memorable characters are bad guys. Kevin Costner, who plays the title character of "Mr. Brooks," may remember how his goody-two-shoes Eliot Ness of "The Untouchables" was completely overshadowed by Robert De Niro's hammy Al Capone as well as Sean Connery's more rough-and-tumble copper.
Sometimes evildoers are even the protagonists, as in the "Godfather" movies and "The Sopranos," which offer moral complexity amid the entertainment. You find yourself relating to the humanity in characters who nonetheless are killers.
"Mr. Brooks" asks you to do the same but without the uncomfy feelings. When the movie starts, Costner is playing Earl Brooks as a tortoise-rimmed-glasses-wearing, recessive Pillar of the Community who, we soon learn, is at the mercy of a sickness. This sickness, literally personified by William Hurt as a pasty-complexioned imaginary companion who goads Mr. Brooks like a bloodthirsty mother-in-law, compels him to gun down an innocent couple while they're working their bedsprings. Costner's distress and the disorienting effects supplied by director Bruce A. Evans (1992's "Kuffs") make clear that Mr. Brooks is at the mercy of his newly reborn compulsion.
But "at the mercy" and "movie star" are not phrases meant to co-exist for long. Soon Costner is dropping his dorky dad/husband act and transitioning into his standard charming-cad know-it-all performance. Mind you, Costner is a charismatic charming-cad know-it-all, far more appealing in such roles than those that exploit his savior complex. But does the world really need the "Bull Durham" of serial killers?
Evans, who co-wrote the screenplay with longtime writing partner Raynold Gideon, borrows from the "Silence of the Lambs" trick book in offering another serial killer who's much more off-putting than the one played by the movie star. This way we can massage our consciences by rooting against the crude tattooed guy and his abrasive girlfriend and for Costner's refined murderer who's always a chess move ahead of everyone else.
The movie further stacks the deck by pairing Mr. Brooks with Mr. Smith (Dane Cook), a youngish photographer who leverages his witnessing of a Mr. Brooks killing by persuading the murderer to let him tag along for the next kill. Mr. Smith plans to get his jollies this way, and given that Cook plays him with the petulance knob turned up to 11, you're clearly meant to hope that Mr. Brooks gets the upper hand over this creep. Voyeurs are much more objectionable than murderers, after all.
Also in the mix is Demi Moore as the killer-stalking detective, and she's got some secrets of her own, which amount to a big "Who cares?" Marg Helgenberger is the requisite loving wife, and Danielle Panabaker is the cute daughter who may have some secrets of her own, which amount to a big "Say what?" The movie hauls out that old trope about the father fearing he's passed his badness down to his child, but it never amounts to more than a screenwriters' conceit and an excuse for a grisly dream sequence.
If you broke down "Mr. Brooks" in terms of structure, twists and momentum, you might give it high marks. The thing does move. To where is the problem.