Directed by Edward Norton
Starring Edward Norton, Alec Baldwin, Gugu Mbatha-Raw
Hollywood’s business is reinvention—all the stories have been told, so there’s nothing left to do but repackage them. The best movies find a way to make tried and tested genres fresh, sometimes by being winkingly self-reflexive (the way Scream was with the slasher movie), or by combining modern sensibility and Golden Age tropes (the way La La Land mixed an indie sensibility with its nostalgia for mid-century musicals), or by knowingly subverting conventions (the way Knives Out gave up the game midway through the movie, giving it room to create its own rules for the modern murder mystery).
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Here’s the strange thing about Edward Norton’s Motherless Brooklyn: The 1999 Jonathan Lethem book upon which it is based was already a radical reworking of the neo-noir. And so Norton, making his writing and directing debut, decided to throw out the book and go back to the well of ‘40s Hollywood noir for his adaptation.
Which is all well and good: I think it was The New York Times critic AO Scott who said—and I’m paraphrasing here—that an adaptation owes its source material its intelligence, not its fidelity. And intelligence Norton has in spades: Transplanting the action from Los Angeles to Brooklyn, and moving the time frame from the ‘90s back to the ‘50s, Norton has crafted an atmospheric period piece with a resonance to current political realities. If only the whole thing weren’t so overplotted.
Norton plays Lionel Essrog, the most underrated operative of a troupe of gumshoes under the command of a private detective named Frank Minna (Bruce Willis) who, as the film opens, has Lionel shadow a clandestine meeting he’s having with some sinister types. The operation goes sideways, and Lionel’s investigation sends him on an odyssey that will take him from the poverty of Harlem’s rundown tenements, all the way to the corruption of city hall’s political stratosphere—specifically into the orbit of Randolph Moses (Alec Baldwin, in what is essentially a more serious version of his Donald Trump impression on Saturday Night Live), an urban planner whose belief in manifest destiny has him clashing with the city’s mostly African-American poor.
It’s a testament to Norton’s pull that he has populated his debut with a veritable who’s who of acting greats. But he’s reserved the meatiest role for himself: Lionel, you see, is not just a lone gumshoe on a quest for answers; he is also suffering from Tourette’s Syndrome (which the book flat-out declares but which the film refuses to diagnose…probably because the diagnosis didn’t exist back in the ‘50s). If the idea of an Oscar-nominated actor portraying a person with a showy disability makes you cringe, you can rest assured that Norton has approached Lionel with much subtlety, making you empathize with his malady by laying it out in easily understood terms. (In one sequence, he even uses the experience of listening to jazz in a Harlem club as a way to illuminate his condition, the music’s disjointed rhythms and abrupt changes a metaphor for the slapdash mechanisms of his brain.)
If Norton had focused on that underdog story, the idea of one idealistic man going to battle with the odds stacked against him, he might have had a Chinatown-like classic in his hands. But he is so preoccupied with following the genre’s penchant for red herrings that his screenplay often digresses, burying the mystery under needless divergences like a possible romance with a black activist (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) or unnecessary characters like an unhinged informant (Willem Dafoe, on a roll since 2017’s The Florida Project). Motherless Brooklyn obscures its hard-edged cynicism and sense of menace under contrived plot twists, and what should have been a reinvention of the neo-noir thriller just becomes its pale imitation.
Motherless Brooklyn opens Wednesday, December 11, in select Ayala Malls cinemas.
Photographs by Warner Bros. Pictures