Movie Review: Motherless Brooklyn20th January 2020
Presumably sick of being unable to craft a role the way he wants, Edward Norton has decided that the best course of action would just be to make his own projects the way he sees fit. A bold move to make, especially seeing as his career has been winding down somewhat in recent years, his role in Isle of Dogs still being his most valuable piece of acting since his small roles in Birdman and The Grand Budapest Hotel. His directing, writing and acting work in Motherless Brooklyn is his latest spectacle, and one that peters out rather rapidly.
A private detective with Tourette’s syndrome, Lionel Essrog (Norton) follows up a lead left to him by his mentor Frank Minna (Bruce Willis). Coinciding with the powers of New York, his trail leads him through the streets of Harlem where he finds Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), whose life is in danger. It’s your typical detective piece of film that finds a plucky and otherwise concerned protagonist get in over his head and somehow prevail with the odds stacked against him. A nice enough premise leads the way and with Norton both in front of and behind the camera, his tireless efforts should’ve been enough to combat against the tired narrative structure he seems to have adopted for his work.
It’s unfortunate that the real killer in Motherless Brooklyn is its pacing and running time. Clocking in at nearly two and a half hours, the story can barely cover a ninety-minute run. We spend a lot of downtime with Tony Vermonte (Bobby Cannavale) and Julia Minna (Leslie Mann) as opposed to digging into the more enjoyable aspects of the story. Too much time is spent foreboding, with an unnecessarily long build-up to the actual important pieces of the film. By the time we’re given our various subplots, it’s up to Norton and Norton alone to piece it all together as best he can. He does try, bless him, but much like his character within Motherless Brooklyn, the cards are stacked against him and any effort he manages to inject a bit of life into this lengthy crime drama are futile at best.
Norton is the only one managing to hold the film together, his passion for the project is clear through a surprisingly good performance. His direction is shaky at times, but his clear knowledge of this time period leads to some engaging 40s iconography. Glossy cars, brooding bars and fedora hats on the sweaty brows of detectives that roam the streets looking for the next big event. It’s all put together very well, yet there’s something within Motherless Brooklyn that simply doesn’t gel well. I’d put it down to the script, one that could use some severe treatment. Dialogue that feels both out of place and obnoxiously dull, pieces of commentary on a world gone by that don’t make much applicable sense to anything that surrounds the movie. Poor lines are littered throughout just about any and every character that appears, and it’s a sad shame since it’s the prime reason Motherless Brooklyn tanks so much.
A film created with clear passion is fumbled by the very man holding it all together. Motherless Brooklyn is a drab period piece that digs deep into the noire crime genre madness and shows no signs of attempting to do anything new or unique. Entrenched in its own style and refusing to acknowledge its lacklustre script and lacking supporting roles, the film becomes a thread of boring subplots. Encapsulated by the meandering, unfocused style of his minor plot details, Norton’s direction burrows into ideas sloshed together at seemingly random moments.