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Motherless Brooklyn
First run Theater cinema

Jonathan Lethem’s excellent neo-noir novel Motherless Brooklyn (1999) centers on a fascinating character in its protagonist Lionel Essrog, a small-time gumshoe with Tourette's syndrome. A detective saddled with a myriad of involuntary tics and a mind that constantly forces him to shout nonsensical or offensive words is often at a disadvantage, but the disorder also provides Essrog with a keen auditory memory and other unique skills that make him uniquely qualified for detective work. These skills were recognized early on by Frank Minna, the boss of the neighborhood detective agency, where Essrog works. When Frank is killed, Essrog sets out to try to get to the bottom of his friend and boss’ the murder. The book presents a difficult challenge for a film adaptation because so much of what’s most interesting about it happens inside Essrog’s head.

Edward Norton (American History X, Fight Club, Birdman), a charismatic, edgy actor who’s been on the A-list ever since his acclaimed debut in the excellent legal thriller Primal Fear (1996), tackles this material full-on as its star, director, co-producer, and screenwriter. For a project as ambitious as this, it’s at least one job too many, especially given that this is his début as a director and the lead role is one of those Oscar-baity showcase parts that can be difficult for a movie star to credibly pull off. Indeed it takes several scenes for us to accept Norton as Essrog and not just see a movie star, who we know is also helming the picture, “acting” as a physically challenged character. But Norton is a skilled performer and, after some time, we settle into it. But part of why it takes so long is that his directing style keeps us at arms-length from the story he’s telling. The opening sequence, featuring Bruce Willis as Minna, should be a thrilling introduction, as it is in the book. But Norton stages it awkwardly in, what I assume is, an attempt to place us within his character’s perspective that only prevents us from feeling connect to the proceedings.

Things don’t improve much in terms of visual aesthetics. This version of Motherless Brooklyn is set in New York of the 1950s and is one of those period pictures that look utterly artificial. The make-up and costumes make everyone look like they’re living in a wax museum, not the gritty streets of Brooklyn. Similarly, All the shots of the New York skyline and other wide neighborhood images look like digitally rendered MacBook screensavers—this is easily the worst looking film ever shot by the great British cinematographer Dick Pope (Topsy-Turvy, The Illusionist, Mr. Turner).

Norton’s decision to set the story in the 1950s, rather than the contemporary setting of the novel (then the 1990s) is also indicative of his overreach. While the source material’s milieu certainly lends itself to a film noir style, Norton’s screenplay attempts to be both a modern commentary on how the rich and powerful operate within and above the government they disparage, and a historical piece about how New York City was intentionally developed to marginalize and relocate poor and minority communities. Both of these worthy and formidable goals are beyond the reach of Norton as both a writer and a filmmaker. He turns Lethem’s story into a Chinatown for New York with the change in time period and the addition of an all-powerful, Noah Cross type of villain named Moses Randolph—based on Robert Moses, the infamous New York city planner extraordinaire of the mid-20th century. Norton ties his master builder character to Essrog’s love interest Laura Rose in ways that recall Evelyn Mulray’s connection to Noah Cross in Chinatown, though less seedy and more predicate.

The narrative often comes off as overcomplicated, but it’s effective on many levels. The beats of this story are intricate and clever, and Essrog provides a novel perspective for audiences to discover these events and themes through. Norton has also amassed an excellent cast including Bobby Cannavale, Cherry Jones, Michael K. Williams, Willem Dafoe, Alec Baldwin as Moses Randolph, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Laura Rose. But all these actors, like the film surrounding them, are oddly unsatisfying. Perhaps this is because, unlike Chinatown, they never seem to fully inhabit the world of the picture. Motherless Brooklyn is plagued with a feeling many contemporary movies suffer from that each actor cames in to shoot all their scenes quickly and separately, never getting fully absorbed into the material. For example, Baldwin and Dafoe share two scenes together but never really feel like in they're in the same movie. The wonderful Mbatha-Raw (BelleBeyond the LightsA Wrinkle in Time) is an engaging and sympathetic screen presence, but her Laura Rose feels more like a narrative device than a fully realized character.

It is always exciting when a complex and thematically rich picture, aimed squarely at adult audiences, makes it to the screen, especially these days. But Motherless Brooklyn fails to live up to its lofty pretensions.

Twitter Capsule:
Norton attempts a Chinatown for NYC by setting Lethem’s novel about a small-time gumshoe with Tourette syndrome in the 1950s and adding a Noah-Cross-like villain based on Robert Moses, but nothing about his film lives up to its lofty pretensions.

Directed by Edward Norton
Produced by Edward Norton, Gigi Pritzker, Bill Migliore, Michael Bederman, Daniel Nadler, Rachel Shane, and Robert F. Smith

Screenplay by Edward Norton
Based on the novel by Jonathan Lethem

With: Edward Norton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alec Baldwin, Bobby Cannavale, Willem Dafoe, Bruce Willis, Ethan Suplee, Cherry Jones, Dallas Roberts, Josh Pais, Radu Spinghel, Fisher Stevens, Peter Gray Lewis, Robert Wisdom, Michael Kenneth Williams, Leslie Mann, and Stephen Adly Guirgis

Cinematography: Dick Pope
Editing: Joe Klotz
Music: Daniel Pemberton

Runtime: 144 min
Release Date: 01 November 2019
Aspect Ratio: 1.85 : 1