Director: Edward Norton
Writer: Edward Norton (script), Jonathan Lethem (novel)
Cast: Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Alec Baldwin, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Willem Dafoe, Ethan Suplee
Producers: Michael Bederman, Bill Migliore, Daniel Nadler, Edward Norton, Gigi Pritzker, Rachel Shane, Robert F. Smith
Music: Daniel Pemberton
Cinematography: Dick Pope
Editor: Joe Klotz
Running time: 144mins
What’s the story: In 1950s New York, private eye and Tourette’s sufferer Lionel Essrog (Norton) takes it upon himself to solve the death of his mentor Frank Minna (Willis). His investigation partners him with city worker and activist Laura Rose (Mbatha-Raw), pitching him against real estate tyrant Moses Randolph (Baldwin).
What’s the verdict: As the nineties turned into the noughties, Edward Norton was the most exciting actor on the block. Yet, over the past twenty years it’s as if Hollywood hasn’t known what to do with him, nor he with Tinseltown.
Motherless Brooklyn marks Norton’s second 2019 onscreen appearance after that cameo in Alita: Battle Angel that laid groundwork for a sequel unlikely to materialise. Norton’s sophomore directorial outing (19 years after lightweight romcom Keeping the Faith) is similar to Alita in that it too has languished long in development hell.
Norton purchased the rights to Jonathan Lethem’s source novel back in 1999, shifting the book’s contemporary setting back to the 1950s. Reportedly because Norton thought the plot was better suited by a noir approach (and, you feel, because he admires the period’s sharp fashion sense).
The result, while not the disaster early internet buzz predicted, is an impressively mounted but curiously uninvolving affair. Norton, still a great actor, is excellent as Lionel, constantly apologising for his barks and yelps while cracking the case.
Supporting players also don’t (rotary) phone it in. This is the most interested in his work you’ll have seen Bruce Willis for a while, and the film would be improved if it had made space for more of him.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw is similarly arresting as Laura, the city worker battling crooked developer Moses Randolph, a bad guy whose biblical name echoes the villain from Chinatown, a key influence here. As Randolph, Alec Baldwin sours his SNL comedy Trump turn into something more malevolent. But, as the real estate magnate is someone who passes himself off as a man of the people, but despises the lower classes, particularly minorities, Baldwin still clearly sings from the same hymn sheet.
Where Motherless Brooklyn falters is in the core plot. Lionel visits the usual gumshoe locations on his way to solving the mystery – city hall offices, abandoned tenements, seedy bars, his own frills-free apartment – but there is a sense of tell-don’t-show to how the plot unravels.
Willem Dafoe’s eccentric engineer takes on such a Basil Exposition role you begin to wonder if, in a call back to an earlier Norton triumph, he isn’t a figment of Lionel’s troubled mind (he isn’t).
Similarly distracting is the directorial decision to hide Baldwin’s face in his first few scenes, despite his voice, build and profile making the actor clearly recognisable. And artlessly plonking an entire Thom Yorke song into a scene early on doesn’t help establish tone…
The decision to shift everything back to the 50s results in the political correctness ringing false. Lionel is called “Freakshow” by his fellow private dicks, but more with affection than malice. Strangers are also sympathetic to his affliction in a way that is simply historically inaccurate. Same too with the lack of racial epithets.
Norton manages to tie it all up come the final fade-out, but not in a satisfying manner. Frank’s death and an initially major character (played by Norton’s American History X co-star Suplee) are all-but forgotten. Where Chinatown suggested a near-existential evil conspiring against its protagonist, Motherless Brooklyn goes with its lead merely settling for less.
Still, room is made for that Family Guy moment when a character says the name of the film in the film…