Directed By Edward Norton
Starring – Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Willem Dafoe
The Plot – Set against the backdrop of 1950s New York, “Motherless Brooklyn” follows Lionel Essrog (Norton), a lonely private detective afflicted with Tourette’s Syndrome, as he ventures to solve his friend’s murder. Armed only with a few clues and the powerful engine of his obsessive mind, Lionel unravels closely-guarded secrets that hold the fate of the whole city in the balance.
Rated R for adult language throughout including some sexual references, brief drug use, and violence
– Newfound success. In choosing to adapt a novel that takes place in the 90’s, and spin it during the swing of the roaring 50’s, Norton conjures up a crime noir story that establishes his passion for the genre in spades. Absorbing as much as he has from the classics he grew up with, Norton accomplishes a wardrobe consistency of three piece suits and free-flowing gowns, a scintillating musical score with enough horns and trumpets to bring to life the late night think tank feel that many detectives endure, and of course in-depth narration from Norton’s own character, which paints the very complicated line he toes in being a part of so many relationships within the central conflict. It establishes a retro presentation that we unfortunately very rarely see anymore within big screen releases, and provides proof that Norton’s impeccable eye and ear for detail give him an exceptionally gifted presence in transformative cinema, and render him a credible triple threat in acting, directing, and writing.
– Friends in high places. Norton brings along his most famous acquaintances and co-stars from previous films to make his first helmed an impressive assortment of attention-stealing focus in a sea of familiar faces. Aside from the impressive trio that I mentioned above, they are also joined by young Hollywood phenom Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alec Baldwin, Michael K. Williams, Leslie Mann, and Bobby Cannavale, to name a few. It gives the film a rich feeling of elite star power that most directors have to wait a few films to attain, and proves Norton’s influence over his word of mouth in order to make this collaboration something that is visually impressive. Not every big name has a big presence over the film, but its decision to dispose of one very early on solidifies the unpredictability within this established environment, adding to the gritty surrealism of Brooklyn during a very violent period in the city’s history.
– Script depth. One refreshing element to the progression of the screenplay is in this emerging subplot of racial gentrification within the city’s tenants, which has brought to light some deep-seeded issues from a questionable administration. What’s so rewarding about this aspect of the script is that Norton touches on the very honest circumstance that many minorities actually dealt with during such a period in history, and incorporates it seamlessly into a story that further plays to the heat of its on-going investigative mystery. This in turn allows the storytelling to remain fresh, and opens up the second half of the film to improve on some of the areas during the first half, whose plodding pacing and disjointed editing transitions kept me from investing my interest into any of these characters or table dressing subplots.
– Committed performance. It’s no surprise that Norton is the star here, and whether or not his level of ego has rubbed you the wrong way in his quotes throughout his mystery with the media, one thing is certain; the man’s adaptability is one that never gives less than a hundred percent. In this particular instance, it’s his character’s losing battle with Tourrete’s syndrome, that ruins nearly every public occasion he chooses to invest himself into, for the better of the case. His delve into this undesirable predicament is patient in its influence, appearing during the most spontaneous moments, where it not only gives us more than few surprising laughs during the picture, but also never feels like a dried up well of a gimmick that Norton clings to for too often. Dafoe also gives another heralded turn, this time as a neurotic professor with an addiction to all things food. It brings forth yet another colorful personality to the already award-deserving year that the actor has been having, and treats us to a magical dynamic between he and Norton, which never feels enough in the nearly two-and-a-half hour run time.
– One touching scene. “Motherless Brooklyn” features one of my favorite scenes of 2019, where a slow dance between two characters signifies a poetic resolve in each of them filling what the other is lacking. The jazz music accompanying it is perfectly transfixing, but it’s really the body language of the two actors in frame, and how their connection transcends everyone and everything surrounding them. It’s a scene so peacefully entrancing that is captured by a series of long-take revolving shot composition, keeping the focus solely where it needs to be, and preserving the air of connection between the two characters that establishes this as a breakthrough love interest for the movie’s following third act. It approaches the romantic subplot with an air of class that is often thrown away by an unnecessary sex scene, but here is followed up upon with a touch of patience and reserve that really does preserve this a time-piece story.
– Alluring setting. Brooklyn in the 50’s not only gives us a chance to capture some of the sparkle of the city during a time when so much was being created and established within the city, but also to play irony to the thematic pulse of the movie, which hints at the darker days ahead. This is an interesting juxtaposition, because like the city itself during its heyday, appearances were deceiving, and it all gave way to a racial depression that only began with the Dodgers leaving Brooklyn for greener pastures in Los Angeles. To cement this feeling, we’re treated to an abundance of gorgeous establishing shots of the city that approach its conflicts from an aerial level first, giving way to the ideal that bad things happen behind picket fences.
– Too long. At 138 grueling minutes, Norton’s biggest negative as a director is the necessity to know what and where to cut within his often times plodding pacing. There are scenes like the ones Norton’s character shares with fellow detectives that goes nowhere, and offers nothing towards the kind of isolation vulnerability associated with most crime noir dramas. In addition to this, the entire first initially begins feeling like we the audience are joining a film that has already been in progress. The introductions are brief, if anything at all, the explanation for what’s transpiring is lost in a sea of metaphors and cop lingo that had me rolling my eyes for its frequency, and the introduction of Norton’s Tourette’s is a strange one because we don’t fully comprehend if it’s there as a gimmick within this sting, or if it is in fact reality for him. A half hour could easily be trimmed from this film, and you would lose nothing. It proves that Norton as a director just has to know when to trim the fat. Without it, “Motherless Brooklyn” is an arduous task that is too simplistic in storytelling direction to be so long.
– Sloppy editing. This is the one area of Norton’s technical spectrum that could certainly use improvement, as the time continuity and scene transitions within the film often feel like they’re jumping ahead abundantly without visual explanation. The former will often cut in the context of the same scene by presenting a character standing up one second, then walking back to their chair with a glass of water immediately one second later. It jumbles the telegraphing necessary to put the audience in the heat of the setting, and makes the characters feel gifted with advanced teleportation.
– Uncomfortably funny. I understand that the film was going for the occasional laugh with Norton’s jaded Tourette’s encompassing, but with honesty for this particular disease comes brutality, as we the audience are essentially laughing at a man who is suffering for our own entertainment. In addition to this, the power of the humor being as strong as it is really does a disservice to the diminishing tension of the scene, leaving us stranded in scenes of drama we’re supposed to care about and invest in, but truly don’t because we’re also being told to laugh at the very same time. For about 70% of the film, it does maintain the tonal consistency needed to feel like one cohesively emotional product, but for the few instances there’s enough damage done to take away from the edge-of-the-seat aspect that the film so desperately requires.
– Generic screenplay. It’s disappointing to say the least where this film ends up. There’s no big shootout, no physical confrontation of any kind, and especially no satisfying climax that ties everything together to justify the time investment. One could argue that this plays into the vibe of a crime noir, where it’s always more assertive dialogue than actions, but the magnitude of this anti-climatic final act is so easily forgettable that it’s sure to take the final grade of any moviegoer down a grade because of how much air of momentum it omits from the finished product. Aside from this, “Motherless Brooklyn” adds nothing to the already overstuffed crime noir genre, with the exception of maybe a Tourette’s-riddled protagonist on the case, but even that wears thin by around the twenty minute mark. It proves that some novels shouldn’t be adapted regardless of the inspirational intention, and gives this particular instance a grave case of underdeveloped dramatic pull that leaves it in search of an identity it never fully finds.
My Grade: 6/10 or C