Being from Durham, North Carolina, I have seen a lot of changes happen in my city over the last few years. Durham kept a large, mostly black, working-class population due to the employment of so many citizens at the tobacco processing plants in the mid-20th-century. Following the plants’ closures, Durham was left to its own devices as the rich bureaucrats made off to different cities. This made Durham “ghetto” and “gross” to outsiders and, growing up, children were pretty much consistently asked “Oh, you’re from Durham? Have you ever been shot before?” by other children from other cities. Until, one day, Durham just…became cool. The opening of the Durham Performing Arts Center and the fetishization of old, industrial buildings being made into luxury apartments and high-end restaurants led Durham into a hipster renaissance. From the outside, it looked like Durham was on the upswing, but in reality, those working-class residents of the city were slowly, but surely, being forced out by the more affluent young population seeking a small city to build as their “own.” This process, known as gentrification, is not exclusive to my own city but is rampant in cities and neighborhoods across the country (ex. Brooklyn, Oakland, Philadelphia, Washington D.C.), and almost always disproportionately affects black people of lower-income status. This, in its essence, is what Motherless Brooklyn, the new noir film written for the screen by, produced by, directed by, and starring Edward Norton, is trying to make a strong statement on, and when it leans into this very relatable topic for many people across the country, it works wonders. Too bad it’s also bogged down by cliché noir tropes and bland filmmaking.
Set in 1950s New York City, Lionel Essrog (Edward Norton) is a lonely private investigator living with Tourette’s Syndrome and working for Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), his mentor since childhood. When Frank is mixed up with dangerous dealings that end in his death, Lionel begins to search for answers, leading him up the dark ladder of New York bureaucracy, with dirty deals and devious plans all circling around the work of activist Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and her connection with city planner head Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin).
Though the movie is based on the 1999 novel by Jonathan Lethem, Norton, off the bat, takes a ton of creative liberties with the source material, transporting it from the 1990s to the 1950s, making the social and racial implications of the story at hand much more dangerous and complicated. And with this, if you think Motherless Brooklyn sounds like a standard New York crime drama with noir vibes to it, it’s because it is. Whenever the film strictly sticks to the crime aspects of the film, without diving deeper the sociopolitical implications at hand in the story, the film sputters to find any sort of life.
It’s when the story dives into the storyline involving housing reassignment and racial segregation through urban planning and housing development that the film takes shape into something far more compelling and cohesive. It can sound dull on paper compared to the “sexier” aspects of murder mystery and crime thrills, but the screenplay, in these moments, hits upon uncomfortable topics exacerbated by the rich people based in big cities that Hollywood seems to avoid confronting much of the time. It’s this subtlety of building a story around what might not seem sexy on paper that makes a good portion of the second act of Motherless Brooklyn so compelling. It’s just that the film is taken down by the rest of the film’s cookie-cutter filler before and after said storyline.
Upon first viewing of the trailer for Motherless Brooklyn, the scenes that detail Norton’s portrayal of Tourette’s Syndrome feel borderline distasteful, reminding me much of the episode of South Park where Cartman pretends to have Tourette’s to get away with cursing in public. In the final product, Norton’s performance is far more nuanced and tragic than the more severe spasms shown in the trailer for dramatic effect. It can be enough to almost turn someone off to the film, but what ends up transpiring is something far less noticeable and distracting, feeling more natural than perhaps any portrayal of Tourette’s in a major film ever (not that there have been many). Norton pours his heart into his role, and it’s a tragically quiet turn for the oftentimes ostentatious character actor. He also has surprisingly wonderful chemistry with Mbatha-Raw, who, despite the forced nature of their romance, gets to develop a truly dynamic character alongside Norton, rather than consistently feeling overshadowed by him.
The issue with Norton going so deep into his performance in the film is that his involvement in the other aspects of the film, including adapting the screenplay and directing the film, often feel cast to the wayside. The film suffers from tonal issues caused by the many different messages trying to be communicated within the screenplay, and at 144 minutes, it often feels like much of the conflicting elements of the screenplay could be shaved down to something far more singular. Had Norton made more of the political statement in the second act and followed through to a quieter, less familiar finale, it would have felt like a more complete story.
On-screen, Motherless Brooklyn is also very bland to look at. Despite its noir nature, the film is bathed in neutral-toned, digitally scrubbed shine that doesn’t fit the sensory tone of what both the screenplay and the musical score seeks to achieve. It’s far too clean and un-stylized for a film of its genre and, rather than subverting expectations into something flashier or perhaps grittier, Norton seems to settle for something that feels less authentic.
That being said, the musical score from Daniel Pemberton, as well as the original song “Daily Battles” by Thom Yorke, set the aural scene wonderfully by playing into the tropes set by previous noir films and tweaking them ever so slightly into making something that feels a bit more uneasy and offbeat. It doesn’t set a sinister tone by any means, but it’s music that helps us dig into the tortured and misaligned conscious of the main character, which truly proves how every aspect of a film can go into providing depth and character to something that isn’t particularly tangible on the page.
Contrary to my complaints, I can’t say I disliked Motherless Brooklyn, it’s just merely fine. It has elements of greatness and there are moments where those elements come together for brief moments, giving a glimpse into a better film that is more sure of itself both visually and narratively. Had the film been a bit more stylized and streamlined, this could’ve felt like a home run for Norton as a filmmaker. What we do have though is a film that has some excellent performances, a beautifully tortured musical score, and a portion of a story that makes a scathing statement against the nature of discrimination in the act of gentrification. These things, despite not always coming together, outweigh the cliché pitfalls that simply look to stall the film, not sink it.
In theaters November 1st, 2019.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.