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THE MOVIE MASOCHIST: Television for women and serial killers

If you have cable, you've probably seen programs on (or commercials for) Lifetime TV, the network that once marketed itself as "television for women." This designation apparently means reruns of "Designing Women" and original movies shot in warm tones that feature gentle piano music to accompany each emotional epiphany.

So imagine your surprise, then, as you go to a multiplex to see an R-rated movie about a serial killer - and instead discover a Lifetime TV movie laden with graphic violence whose main character is a sympathetic guy who just wants to quell his urge to slaughter so he can enjoy quality time with his family.

That's what you get with "Mr. Brooks," a thriller in which style and content clash so wildly that at times you can't quite believe what you're seeing. To get an idea of what this movie is like, imagine an episode of the wholesome, milquetoast drama "Seventh Heaven" intercut with "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and filmed to look like a Pottery Barn catalog.

Earl Brooks (Kevin Costner) is a successful, middle-aged businessman for whom serial killing is an occasional, uncontrollable urge. He seems to enjoy it much more than his other hobby, which is pottery (who wouldn't?). He wants to quit killing so badly he goes to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and talks about his "addiction," although he wisely leaves out the particulars. He has a demonic imaginary friend named Marshall (William Hurt) who continually encourages him to murder and who also has all the best lines.

Earl is methodical, never leaving any evidence behind because he doesn't want to get arrested and - more worrisome - his wife might find out what he's doing. Earl's latest homicidal outing gets complicated when an amateur photographer/peeping tom named Smith (comedian Dane Cook) accidentally snaps a picture of Earl at the scene of a fresh crime. Since Smith is just as demented as Earl, he demands that Earl let him tag along during the next killing. Smith is also such a sweaty, creepy dope that he manages to make himself a suspect in the latest killings, which are being investigated by taut, humorless Det. Atwood (played by taut, humorless Demi Moore).

To make the story even more complicated, Earl's daughter is a suspect in an ax murder - yes, an ax murder - that occurred at her college, and she forgot to mention that when she came home after dropping all her classes. There's also a grungy killer called the Hangman stalking Det. Atwood, who's mired in a divorce that basically serves as a tangent to a digression to an unnecessary subplot.

Why is this all so irritating? Because buried beneath all the silliness is the core of a decent thriller that boasts two strong performances by the oft-maligned Costner (he does his stoic routine to remarkable effect) and the enjoyable Hurt, who seems to be the only one aware of the material's potential for macabre comedy. "I loooove what you're thinking," Marshall purrs as Earl contemplates another crime, ignoring the fact that he's simply part of Earl's mind. The idea of a killer's imaginary pal sounds ridiculous, but somehow the chemistry between the actors and Hurt's playful malevolence actually makes parts of the movie, well, fun. Which makes the rest of it even more infuriating.

Instead of letting dark comedy prevail, as Hitchcock might have done, director-screenwriter Bruce A. Evans gives us a tormented Earl who whispers the Alcoholics Anonymous Prayer: "God grant me the strength to accept the things I cannot change,” etc. Evans works hard to make Earl a likable guy - and succeeds - instead of allowing him the negative charisma of a real villain like Richard III or Hannibal Lecter.

We also get scenes of Earl reaching out to his daughter who, in addition to being a budding psycho killer herself, is also pregnant. Liking the idea of being a grandparent, Earl gently encourages her to keep the baby. For a moment it feels like Earl might make a good grandpa, except earlier we saw him gun down a young couple as they begged for their lives. The background music is a few soft notes on a piano, indicating that this is an Emotionally Touching Scene.

None of this is played for laughs, either, although the idea of a murderous family talking grandkids is darkly satirical to the core. It seems, however, that the filmmakers are trying to tell us Earl is a great guy if you can just overlook all that silly murdering business. Earl would be fine if Alcoholics Anonymous could just forget those alcoholics for a minute and provide a workable 12-step program for serial killers.

"Mr. Brooks" is rated R for graphic violence, strong language, nudity and willfully sabotaging itself.

* out of four stars. Lousy.

The rating system:

* - Lousy

** - Horrible

*** - Painful

**** - Traumatic