Motherless BrooklynReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 11/01/19 06:28:51
It is said that Edward Norton has been itching to do a film adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s acclaimed 1999 neo-noir novel “Motherless Brooklyn” virtually from the moment that it was published. Nearly two decades later, the project has finally arrived with him writing and directing (his first time in the director’s chair since 2000’s markedly different “Keeping the Faith”) as well as starring and by the time it finally comes to an end, most viewers will find themselves simply baffled by the results and what it was that could have driven him for so long. The film is clearly a labor of love for Norton and with its lavish recreation of 1950s era New York and a cast filled with top-notch actors, it looks as impeccable as one could possibly hope for but it never clicks together for even a second of its absurdly protracted 2 1/2 hour running time.Set in the 1950s, Norton stars as Lionel Essrog, a man with Tourette’s Syndrome who was part of a group of former orphans who were taken under the wing of Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), a private detective who taught him how to use the various facets of his disability to his professional advantage. One day, Lionel and bumbling colleague Gilbert (Ethan Suplee) are brought along as backup for a meeting with clients that Frank is being unusually secretive about and, perhaps inevitably, it all goes to hell and Frank winds up shot dead. Lionel is devastated and elects to bring Frank’s killer to justice and begins pursuing his own investigation that leads to a vast conspiracy of lies and corruptions with the ruthless and powerful city planner Moses Randolph (played, perhaps inevitably, by Alec Baldwin) and his determination to force out working-class black residents from their affordable housing and replace them with new buildings catering to the wealthy at its center. Another key element to the case is Laura (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a fair-housing activist who Frank was investigating and who proves to be the link tying the increasingly sprawling story together.
In adapting Lethem’s novel to the screen, Norton has kept the character of Lionel and the basic setup involving the mentor being killed and jettisoned the rest, even going so far to transplant the time period from the then-contemporary era of the original novel to 1957, a time when guys wore snap-brim fedoras and noir was neo-free. To replace that story, Norton has devised a new one that seems inspired equally by “Chinatown,” that most famous of neo-noirs, and “The Power Broker,” Robert Caro’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Robert Moses, a New York city planner who exploited unelected government appointments to amass unheard-of levels of power and used them to help literally remake large parts of the city as he saw fit. To put it simply, it doesn’t work. While Lethem’s notion of taking a noir premise and updating it to contemporary times offered up some intriguing variations on standard genre themes, taking that conceit and placing it back in its more logical setting robs it of that mystique and turns it into just another mystery, one that somehow comes across as simultaneously confusing and tiresome. As for the material related to city planning and the idea that gentrification has always been a key element that ensures that the rich stay rich and the poor get screwed, it is the element that Norton seems more interested in exploring but was forced to shoehorn it into the unnecessary mystery narrative instead of simply doing a straight-up film version of “The Power Broker.”
Of course, if Norton had done a straight adaptation of Caro’s book, he would not have had a chance to once again dazzle audience with a tic-suffused performance that bears a marked similarity to his turns in “Primal Fear” and “The Score.” The performance is technically fine but it always feels like a performance and we never really get a chance to know and understand Lionel as anything other than a collection of colorful mannerisms that can be milked whenever the narrative requires it. Apart from a couple of nice moments here and there with Mbatha-Raw, Norton is content to give a shamelessly showy turn of the sort that one might think that an actor with his obvious gifts would not need to indulge in at this point. At least you cannot forget him—no matter how hard you may want to—which is more than you can say for most of the other performances, which find excellent actors either delivering the same basic performance that they have done many times before (Baldwin’s Moses is actually more reminiscent of Donald Trump than his own actual impersonation of Trump) or stuck in roles too bizarrely constructed to understand, such as the mysterious figures played by Michael Kenneth Williams and a super-hammy Willem Dafoe.There are some virtues to be had with “Motherless Brooklyn”—the stylized evocation of period New York is striking and there are a few scenes here and there, such as the one where Lionel’s brain forces him to physically react to the hot freeform jazz he is listening to, that really do work—but they become few and far between as the film lumbers on to its clunky finale. For the most part, however, the film is little more than a turgid misfire and a painfully apt example of what can happen when an undeniably talented person elects to apply their own artistic vision to a narrative that was getting along fine without it. At the beginning of the film, in the first of many too on-the-nose moments, we see Lionel tugging at a literal loose thread on his sweater before he begins tugging on the metaphorical threads leading to the people behind the murder of his friend. In remaking “Motherless Brooklyn” in the way that he has done here, Edward Norton seems to doing some metaphorical tugging as well but in the end, all that we are left with is a bunch of loose, useless threads and a formerly promising story in ruins.
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