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MOVIE REVIEW

The murderer in the rear view mirror

William Hurt (left) plays Kevin Costner's murderous inner demon, whispering evil from the back seat. William Hurt (left) plays Kevin Costner's murderous inner demon, whispering evil from the back seat. (Ben Glass)

Mr. Brooks runs a successful box company in the Pacific Northwest. He's solidly upper-middle-class, has a wife, a daughter , and a partiality to bow ties. He's a pillar of the community. He likes to murder people.

It isn't the most original idea for a movie -- the bland, all-American face of evil -- but when that movie stars Kevin Costner as the serial killer, you tend to sit up and take notice. "Mr. Brooks" is Cost- ner's attempt to shake up his somnolent Marlboro-man image, to go to the dark side and get audiences interested in him again, and as long as it's focused on his character (or characters; more on that below), it's funny, dirty, thrilling stuff: Grade-A pulp.

But why be content with one plot when you can have several crashing into each other? "Mr. Brooks" is also a fertile example of the Studio Film Gone Berserk, where too many characters and too many story lines geometrically progress until a level of blissful absurdity is reached. There are three movies crammed into this one: The first is good, the second is so bad it's good, and the third is just plain bad. That's still three times the bargain most movies offer.

The good movie stars Costner as Earl Brooks , who has kept the lid on his homicidal addiction for several years before the movie opens, whereupon it starts calling to him again. Or, rather, he starts calling: he being "Marshall ," Brooks's malevolent inner demon, played by William Hurt with the glee of uncut Id. Marshall sits in the back seat, whispering murder into the rearview mirror as Earl drives home from a banquet with his lovely wife (Marg Helgenberger ). Marshall is every awful thought you've tried to repress.

The slaughter of random innocents that follows is a shocker: brutal and fast, very aware of the sexual charge Brooks gets from the act. It's in no way fun, though, at least for Earl, who begs Marshall to set him free. It is enjoyable, however, for the sleazy little slacker (comedian Dane Cook ), who witnesses the killing and blackmails Brooks into letting him come along next time.

A dark mentor/disciple relationship develops, with Marshall urging bloody mayhem from the sidelines of the hero's skull. "Mr. Brooks" is witty enough -- just -- to make the distinction between serial killers driven by inner compulsion and soulless modern kids bored by YouTube and looking for the next big kick.

Meanwhile -- here's the so-bad-it's-good story line -- police detective Tracy Atwood (Demi Moore ) is obsessively following Earl's bloody trail while dealing with (a) the fallout of her divorce from a smarmy playboy (Jason Lewis ), (b) an escaped killer (Matt Schulze ) who wants revenge, and (c) the burden of being an independently wealthy civil servant. Any one of these would suffice for its own movie, but our Tracy's a multitasker.

Indeed, Moore is so grimly purposeful that it's hard not to get the giggles. The older she gets, the more the actress reminds me of late-period Joan Crawford : same rigid face and bulldog ferocity, same air of lunatic conviction. Whatever movie Moore's in, or thinks she's in, she's the queen bee.

The third plot thread involves Earl's college-age daughter (Danielle Panabaker ) and I won't spoil it other than to say that it just doesn't work, primarily because the filmmakers have their hands too full to develop it properly. No, the reason you're here -- and you should be here if you have the proper reverence for clever genre sadism and slumming stars -- is the sanguine triangle between Earl, Marshall, and "Mr. Smith," as the blackmailer dubs himself.

Costner and Hurt play together deliciously well. They're like the "Sideways" duo of introvert and extrovert sandwiched into one psychological ham-on-wry. (Cook, freed of the burden of being the hot new thing, graciously steps back and lets the old boys have their way.) A bit in which Earl and Marshall share a nasty laugh over Smith's naivete is so inspired that director Bruce A. Evans (who co-wrote the script with Raynold Gideon ) unnecessarily repeats it a few minutes later.

That's true of the movie as a whole: It's never quite as smart as its central concept or performances. Evans keeps nudging Earl in the direction of a Hannibal Lecter -style omniscient genius -- what's with the scene where Mr. Brooks breezily hacks into Detective Atwood's tax records? Despite that, nothing's as simple or unnerving as the frustrated little moan Costner lets out when Earl burns the photos of his bloody night's work.

That moan is the lament of a white-collar drone who knows his real worth will never be recognized. When it's not completely flipping out, "Mr. Brooks" says that work may be important, but ultimately it's secondary. It's our hobbies that define who we are.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr @globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/movies/blog.

'Related'

Mr. Brooks

Directed by: Bruce A. Evans

Written by: Evans and Raynold Gideon

Starring: Kevin Costner, William Hurt, Demi Moore, Dane Cook, Marg Helgenberger,

Danielle Panabaker

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs

Running time: 120 minutes

Rated: R (strong bloody violence, some graphic sexual content, nudity and language)

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