The cinematic adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s book Motherless Brooklyn by Edward Norton (Keeping the Faith) possesses all the hallmarks of a great noir: mystery, a dame in trouble, and a gumshoe in over his head. When you add in a cast that includes a delicate, yet engaging performance from Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Fast Color), Bruce Willis (Hudson Hawk) in the perfect softie smartass role, Alec Baldwin (The Departed) using his powerful presence to incredible affect, and Willem Dafoe (The Florida Project) oscillating between rage and devastation in the way only he can, Motherless Brooklyn seems like an absolute Awards darling. And that’s without mentioning a wonderful jazz score featuring the marvelous Wynton Marsalis and Thom Yorke offering different versions of a ballad. With so much that works as pieces, it’s perplexing that the whole of Motherless Brooklyn ends up feeling lifeless, rather than as a living, breathing film.
Born with Tourettic impulses, Lionel Essrog (Norton) is a conundrum of a detective. On the one hand, his various tics manifest in the form of various verbal outbursts and compulsive behaviors which make any kind of subterfuge difficult. On the other, he can remember anything he sees or hears with immaculate precision, helping him to find the connections within information easily. It’s this second aspect which makes him an invaluable asset to Frank Minna (Willis). While on a simple back-up job for Frank, Lionel and fellow gumshoe Gilbert (Ethan Suplee) find themselves in a chase around the Burroughs that ends tragically. Unable to let the puzzle go, Lionel takes it upon himself to try to figure out what his boss was investigating, placing him directly in the center of secret war happening for the soul of New York.
To call Motherless Brooklyn a conundrum would be an absolute understatement. Without spoiling too much content, the larger story focuses on the gentrification of New York. This is a serious subject and, when the film takes the time to explore it, Brooklyn becomes powerful in its timeliness as issues of race are as inciting now as they were in post-World War II when the story takes place, particularly as the film focuses on government corruption as it relates to the powerful and their view of the lesser, and especially as the audience is introduced to Baldwin’s Moses Randolph, a real estate developer who’s the one in real control of New York’s inner workings. There’s some truly interesting exploration of the lengths the empowered will go to get what they want, no matter the pain they inflict along the way. Considering the film opens with a quote from William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, “O, it is excellent to have a giant’s strength (sic), but it is tyrannous to use it like a giant,” there’s a certain expectation that the film will explore and potentially eviscerate the wealthy. Except the film seems satisfied with using these aspects as merely set-up with no real purpose. This would be fine if Brooklyn were consistent with a noir in all its pieces, except it’s far more idyllic in its entire execution. Brooklyn seeks hope through Lionel. Whether it achieves it may be up to the viewer to discern, but there’s no arguing that the nihilistic view which pervades noirs is mostly non-existent. Yes, there is a machine at work chewing up portions of New York, but with one line and a vague ending, all of that gets tossed away. Then, of course, there’s the life imitates art factor which is hard to ignore. If you’re unaware, during filming of Motherless Brooklyn a fire broke out which has left many homeless. The fact that the film explores how the powerful try to sweep the so-called undesirables out of New York while the production literally seems to be doing the same creates a hollowness within the plot which rings throughout the runtime.
What doesn’t help in conveying the overall message of Brooklyn is the persistent unevenness in tone. On the whole, the film is a crime drama. Lionel, adept though he is and brilliantly creative in a variety of situations, is more often used as a joke. Scenes which, by the manner in which Lionel is used in, demolish of any sincerity or seriousness. As a character with Tourettic impulses in the time period alluded, his condition is both undiagnosed and misunderstood. Lionel is repeatedly called “freak” or “freak show” by his agency buddies, except Frank, and the timing of outbursts ranges from falling within the framework of rules established in the start to being used as a punchline in dramatic scenes which automatically defuses any emotional tension. This, of course, may not be Norton’s intent as the writer, actor, and director of the film, except that’s how the audience in the screening I attended viewed Lionel. His uncontrolled outbursts brought heaps of laughter to the theater when no one should laugh. In one scene, after another loss of life occurs, the reaction to one of Lionel’s tics became the soundtrack of a character learning their loved one was dead. Certainly, some of this is beyond the control of the creators and speaks volumes about how the audience views someone with such a condition. This is not the place for such an examination, but it’s certainly worth noting that Motherless Brooklyn, while not humorless, is a drama first and a mystery second. It’s one thing to watch Frank verbally poke at Lionel when the two have an establish rapport of mutual respect versus when the narrative itself seems intent on getting the audience to laugh at him, especially when the characters within the film, more often than not, move past his tics with ease.
While not the strictest areas of contention, the look of the film carries no particular view or specific idea of the period. The cinematography from Dick Pope (The Illusionist), while crisp and clean, doesn’t create a sense of grittiness the narrative so desperately wants to employ. Similarly, while the costume design by Amy Roth is lovely (Marvel’s The Avengers), the cinematic presentation makes them look like nothing more than costumes. In the concluding moments of the film, Brooklyn reaches peak frustration due to its obvious pretension when Norton elects to showcase snow-covered reeds over the actors after a character references the cold. This stands out particularly because of an earlier outburst by Bobby Cannavale’s Tony Vermonte screaming about it being winter. These, along with other dissociative moments generate a sense of separation between the audience and the film, rather than full immersion.
So here’s where we get to the truly frustrating bit: there’s a lot of incredible good in Motherless Brooklyn. When it’s not telegraphing its twists or turning a medical condition into a giggle factory, the jazz score from Daniel Pemberton, available for streaming via WaterTower Music, is absolutely lovely. It captures the persistent aching Lionel feels due to his lack of interpersonal connection and sets a constant mood for the growing terribleness through the story. All of the performances, even Norton’s less comedic moments, are incredibly engaging and convey some sense of truth to their respective characters. Though audiences may find it difficult to separate Baldwin, who is fantastically terrifying as Moses Randolph, from his caricature of President Trump on SNL, it’s great to see him flex his dramatic muscles after spending so much time in comedies. His character is barely visible, yet remains a constant presence. For her part, Mbatha-Raw imbues her character, Laura, with a quiet strength, sensitivity, and high awareness that extends beyond the page into proper agency. If not for her performance, Laura could easily be dismissed as a prop for the other characters to shuffle around. None of this, however, is enough to address any of the glaring issues that result in a completely uneven and rather forgettable experience.
In theaters November 1st, 2019.
Final Score: 2 out of 5.