Motherless Brooklyn movie review: Edward Norton’s film noir should really have been directed by the Coens or Shane Black
Edward Norton attempts an Orson Welles by writing, directing and starring in the retro-noir styled Motherless Brooklyn, but the end result is not exactly Touch of Evil
castEdward Norton, Gugu Mbatha-raw, Alec Baldwin, Bruce Willis, Cherry Jones, Bobby Canavale, Dallas Roberts, Josh Pais, Radu Spingel, Fisher Stevens, Peter Lewis, Robert Ray Wisdom, Michael Kenneth Williams
Edward Norton attempts an Orson Welles by writing, directing and starring in the retro-noir styled Motherless Brooklyn, but the end result is not exactly Touch of Evil. Not even close.
Stepping into the director’s chair for the first time since the 2000 rom-com Keeping the Faith, Norton adapts the Jonathan Lethem novel of the same name but takes certain liberties with it: he moves its setting from 1999 to the 1957 to lend it a retro-noir style, changes the bad guy and the big bad conspiracy, and forcefully embeds commentary with contemporary relevance. But this revisionist twist only makes it less mesmerising and politically interesting than the films it emulates.
Motherless Brooklyn drips with atmosphere, unfolds at an unhurried pace, and takes you on a deep dive into the shadowy recesses of 1950s New York and the dark alleys of the human psyche — all of which is wrapped up in a tantalising enough package of noir grit. But Norton sacrifices substance for style, and even style for stylishness. So, there's a lot to behold but little to contemplate.
The rough-tongued, hard-boiled detective makes way for Lionel Essrog (Norton), a man with Tourette's and prone to random tics and outbursts. Imagine Philip Marlowe and Rain Man had a love child. Unlike the book, the film never uses the word 'Tourette's' and Lionel describes it as "living with an anarchist." It also eschews some of the internal struggles that made the book so compelling. So, it feels like an unfocused character study punctuated by a few suspenseful confrontations. But Norton still gives the movie a bit of an edge in a performance balanced precariously between comedy and tragedy.
The chief tragedy which propels the plot is that of Lionel's mentor and father figure Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), who is shot in an alley during a sting operation. So, Lionel must put his gumshoe hat on and uncover the mystery of Frank's murder. The serpentine plot takes him from the smokey gin joints of Harlem to the murky ghettos of Brooklyn to the swanky skyscrapers of Manhattan. Eventually, after various detours and missteps, the vast conspiracy involving gentrification, coercion and murder leads to the chief malefactor — a Trump-like mogul named Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin).
Motherless Brooklyn is populated with a lot of standard-issue noir archetypes — shady gangsters, crooked cops, unpleasant reporters, booze-soaked jazz musicians and mysterious damsels. But its ensemble cast must etch these characters in relatively brief screen time and the material is too thin to turn it into even a personal triumph for any of them. Gugu Mbatha-Raw miraculously still shines as the Harlem lawyer Laura Rose but you see the twist about her origins coming a mile away. Baldwin delivers a far less cartoonish and a more credible 1950s version of the Trump he plays on SNL. Willem Dafoe plays Moses Randolph's brother Paul, who is the key to solve the murder and you really wish he had zipper dialogue to work with. There's an overabundance of underdeveloped characters, including those played by Bobby Cannavale (as fellow gumshoe Tony Vermonte), Michael Kenneth Williams (simply credited as Trumpet Man), and Leslie Mann (as Frank's widow Julia) — all of whom are utterly wasted.
If the film holds your interest through its 144-minute runtime, it has more do with its period specific detail and style than any genuine emotional involvement in its story or characters. Dick Pope, who has mastered his visual style by working on Mike Leigh's films since the 90s, brings the same sense of bleakness he brought to London in Naked in his re-creation of 1950s New York in Motherless Brooklyn. There's an undeniable formal elegance in his compositions as he treats noir as a mood, rather than a genre. So, the lighting is more subdued, the shadows more pronounced and the tone more fatalistic. The tonal contrast is visible in the use of muted shades of brown in the seedy underbelly vs the sun-drenched brightness in the gilded surface inhabited by New York's movers and shakers. This adds a snazzy sheen to an empty film and is further complimented by Daniel Pemberton's jazz and a Thom Yorke song in the score.
So, Motherless Brooklyn is a film where atmosphere prevails over the screenplay. As you watch it, you can't help but wonder if in the hands of a more assured director (like the Coens or Shane Black), it could have been a noir masterpiece, instead of the sporadically engaging throwaway Norton serves us.
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