Motherless Brooklyn was written and directed by Edward Norton, based on the novel of the same name by Jonathan Lethem, and stars Norton as Lionel Essrog, a lonely private eye afflicted with Tourette's Syndrome, whose whole world is turned upside down when his friend and mentor Frank Minna (Bruce Willis) is murdered during a job gone wrong. With the help of his fellow investigators (Bobby Cannavale, Ethan Suplee), Lionel hopes to sort through the mystery of what exactly happened to Frank, but when resources are stretched too thin due to the car business the team also has to run in order to seem legit, he’s left on his own to discover the secrets behind Frank’s untimely demise, and ends up uncovering a plot by Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin) so all-encompassing of the city and so sinister, it makes Minna’s death seem like a routine roadblock. With circumstances becoming increasingly dire, and a woman named Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) walking right into the crosshairs of the whole situation, Lionel must solve this case, before time runs out and a whole host of innocent people pay the price. The film also stars Willem Dafoe, Cherry Jones, Michael K. Williams, and Leslie Mann.
When the trailer for Motherless Brooklyn dropped, I thought for sure that it could be a lock for a few Oscar nominations, maybe in the acting and screenplay categories, as well as director; however, as more and more films started to emerge in the awards race, and the reviews for the film didn’t quite turn out the way most people had hoped, that momentum was quickly killed off, meaning the best shot it has at any nomination would be for Edward Norton in the Best Actor category. That’s not to say that the film isn’t good, only that with such now-crowded, surprisingly competitive fields in many of the major categories for awards groups, it just kind of fell off the radar for many of the races it otherwise could have entered, mostly due to how strong its competition actually is. The film actually has quite a bit to contribute to the cinematic landscape (even if most of it is surface level), and with true noir pieces being kind of out-of-the-loop nowadays, it can be nice to sit down and enjoy a light piece of adaptation, regardless of where it fails to stick in the mind.
I enjoyed Motherless Brooklyn, for the most part. It’s overlong and largely unfocused, with a convoluted plot that takes too many turns and nearly forgets where it’s all meant to be going right up until the end (and then decides it didn’t want to go there anyway), but even though it, like Last Christmas, is little more than the sum of its mostly disparate parts, those parts are sparkled and polished to a full mirror shine, so the experience of watching it is, in large part, a pleasant one. It feels as if one is taking a nice stroll through the park on a Sunday afternoon, although it has little to say about the park itself that hasn’t already been said by other walkers, and eventually, it just tires out and sits down without actually making a point it intended to make, somewhat accidentally allowing its thematics to overshadow the characters and narrative, even as its admittedly gorgeous production design gets closer and closer to overshadowing anything the film has to offer.
The main thing holding it all together is an interesting story, propped up by committed performances, the most and least impressive of which is Edward Norton (most because it really is impressive to watch, least because it becomes somewhat repetitive after a while, and one gets the feeling his character’s Tourette’s affliction doesn’t actually serve a thematic purpose). He is committed to the role for sure, as are the other performers, including Bobby Cannavale (nice to see him back) and even Bruce Willis, but neither of the latter two are on screen long enough for those commitments to matter much. The only two performers that have much bearing on the story at hand are Willem Dafoe and Alec Baldwin, the former of which steals every scene he’s in, the latter almost but not quite measuring up to Norton’s performance (although that’s mostly due to lack of screen-time). As far as the admittedly interesting story is concerned, and the mystery of what happened to Frank Minna is unfolded, the new revelations that come to light somewhat pull the film’s focus, but are interesting enough that one might not really notice the shift, even as it fails to justify itself later on. The movie is supposed to be about what happened to Frank at first, but as most noirs do, a thread is untangled to a much larger plot, and it’s this plot that gets most of the attention in the film, one that brings in Gugu Mbatha Raw’s character, one that’s definitely performed well, and has a great significance, but doesn’t seem to have a purpose to that significance, other than to give Alec Baldwin’s Moses Randolph a somewhat cartoonishly racist motivation for his actions in the film. It doesn’t break the movie, but one can’t help but think about it after it’s over, and it fails to actually matter in the end, although the film didn’t lose me because of it.
Where the film will definitely lose some viewers is in its length; it’s almost two and a half hours long, which can wear down some viewers without an engaging enough story, and Motherless Brooklyn attempts to engage a few time, but for the most part only presents. It postures at being an important commentary, and does have something to say, but it doesn’t say it in much more than a surface-level way, which could be harmful depending on how experienced the viewer is with other types of thematically-driven noir films. This easily could have been shortened to two hours or even an hour and a half, and perhaps what it tries to say about racism or gentrification could have been more easily digestible for a wider audience, but as it stands, all they’ll remember is Norton’s performance and how long the film ultimately was. Again, it doesn’t break the movie entirely, and noirs tend to be long affairs as is, but moviemaking isn’t what it used to be, either, and when you have a film that stands at nearly 3 hours long, it can’t be filled with disparate scenes that don’t seem to have much bearing on the actual story at hand. Everything has to matter, and for this film, most of it doesn’t, at least not beyond presentation.
In the end, Motherless Brooklyn is a harmless, if overlong and somewhat unfocused, entertaining mood piece that’s sure to make older, less movie-frequent audiences say “that was really good,” but will fail to impress anyone beyond its surface-level intentions or narrative. Norton does well in the lead role, but behind the camera and on the page, he show he clearly still needs some room to grow before he can make something with genuine substance attached. Essentially, the film is the equivalent of a movie you’ll watch if it’s on tv, but you’re not going to seek out in theaters unless you’re attached to seeing things that way in the first place. Not bad, but not as great as it could have been.
I’m giving “Motherless Brooklyn” a 7.2/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time. Writer for Bitesize Breakdown.