Monday, June 4, 2007

MR. BROOKS and In Defense of Costner

So like I promised (threatened?) I made a beeline (b-line?) for MR. BROOKS over the weekend, despite some pretty harsh reviews. I paid the full price, which I had no problem with since I had plans to sneak into PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN afterwards (and do so very easily, I might add), so I figured a 2-for-1 discount made paying full price an OK deal. And I've got to say, MR. BROOKS is a moderately entertaining little movie, fun for the most part since it doesn't take itself very seriously. It reminded me of a really crappy book I read not long ago called DEATH - AS IN MATADOR (don't look for it, as it's been out of print for decades) about the world's greatest hit man and how he's able to hide his identity from his friends and the authorities. It's a terrible book and I seriously doubt it provided any possible inspiration for the film, but whereas MATADOR wanted to be smart and clever but ended up being convoluted and hackneyed, MR. BROOKS has some clever aspects to it that make it fun, before it eventually becomes convoluted. I won't begrudge anyone who wants to laugh the film off and call it "so good it's bad", because it does get very silly in its final third and there are even a few moments that are just so silly you have to laugh, but there is also a lightheartedness to it that convinces me that the filmmakers were well in on the joke. Any film that opens with a serial killer attending an AA meeting to help him with his "addiction" has at least some tongue-in-cheek attitude behind it and MR. BROOKS has to be at least commended for that. Besides, how else would that explain the casting of Demi Moore as an obsessed cop who also happens to be an heiress? I certainly hope that's the explanation, because if it's not then forget what I just said.

Of course MR. BROOKS' biggest trump card is Kevin Costner in the title role. It's obvious that he's trying to stretch with this film, but if you look at it a little more closely, he's not so much stretching as he is switching sides, doing what he's always done but now playing for the other team. He's still doing the devoted family man bit, but now he's doing it on behalf of evil, and still playing it straight as opposed to playing it as a psycho. Frankly, this was the only way he could have done it without being laughed off the screen; unlike his performance in A PERFECT WORLD (which was excellent), he isn't playing it stupid or hot-headed but simply as a man who is trying to figure everything out the same way most Costner's characters do. This is actually a smart way of going about it since we're used to seeing Costner play these kind of characters, but not like this; it gives us a strange empathy for the character. I'm the first to admit that Costner has a somewhat limited range, but like the skilled actor he is, he knows how to work well within that range, which he does expertly here. On top of that, Costner is paired with William Hurt, playing the character's "conscience" and they have a great rapport together and are a lot of fun to watch. Hurt actually gets all the film's best lines and is obviously having a lot of fun playing off Costner and probably enjoying that he's playing someones id, because how often does that kind of role come along? It's with Hurt that Costner gets to wig out a little and Hurt's presence helps us buy that this character is indeed more than a little crazy and it's inspired casting for a terrific screen duo.

But still, it's Costner's picture and I'm happy to say that he does solid work once again. I say "once again" because if you look at his filmography, it's actually loaded with some excellent performances, from SILVERADO to BULL DURHAM to JFK to A PERFECT WORLD and one of my own personal favorites, OPEN RANGE. Yes, the guy wasn't that great a Robin Hood and he's done a couple of pictures where he's just coasting on his regular guy persona, but I've seen Costner take more risks on material and filmmakers throughout his career than most of the major stars these days. He doesn't always play the same character, like some have criticized him for, and he's not always making these feel-good, hooray-for-America type pictures. The guy can embrace the dark side (think DANCE WITH WOLVES is a happy movie?) and has played more than his fare share of characters in conflict (NO WAY OUT, WYATT EARP). Occasionally he'll stretch and strike out (that accent did him no favors in THIRTEEN DAYS, but it's still a good movie), but at the very least he's taking chances. And the guy is adept at comedy (TIN CUP, BULL DURHAM), action (THE UNTOUCHABLES, ROBIN HOOD), romance (MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE), politics (JFK, THIRTEEN DAYS), what have you and he does it all well. And through and through he has a presence that makes him very easy and likable but also larger than life, like a real movie star. There are very few actors out there who have that natural movie star vibe that Costner has and when one comes along, I say cherish it.

So where do all the haters come from, I wonder? What the hell is wrong with Kevin Costner? I'm a bit stumped in this department, because I've already stated my case, but I can't see what's worth disliking. I suppose it's because he comes across as too much of a goody two-shoes, too vanilla, too much of a regular Joe whose problems are too much the problems of a regular white guy to truly have heft. I can almost see the point of that, but I'm still not buying it. Just look at OPEN RANGE, still one of the very best films of the decade in my opinion, and you'll see a truly great Costner performance. His character is a decent man who is desperately trying to escape a past that included killing people and he finds himself in a situation where he's going to have to pick up arms again. As the film comes to its inevitable (and utterly brilliant) final shootout, Costner lets his character cross the line back to that killer and it's probably the best work of his career. You understand that there's a tragedy to it; even though you're supposed to be on his side you also know that he may have gone too far to return. Costner has long been compared to Gary Cooper (another actor who was seen as not being "actorly" enough) and it's with OPEN RANGE that Costner really deserves that comparison, as this film is to Costner as MAN OF THE WEST is to Cooper, proof of a great actor at the height of his strengths. You can feel all of the inner conflict in these men and it's equally exciting and scary to see and believe them become men of violence again. Would Gary Cooper have made a movie like MR. BROOKS? I doubt it, but if he had, he certainly would have been very good in it. You have to give Costner all the credit in the world: He really knows what he's doing and knows that you've got to move beyond your comfort zone. This guy isn't interesting in just having a career, he's interested in creating a legend. I'm sure he'll succeed.

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