Cinema Review: Motherless Brooklyn

Posted December 3, 2019 in Cinema Reviews

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Motherless Brooklyn

Director: Edward Norton

Talent: Alec Baldwin, Bruce Willis, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Bobby Cannavale, Willem Dafoe, Leslie Mann

Release: 6 December

“What happens to poor people in this city wasn’t news yesterday, and it won’t be tomorrow.” 

Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) fights gentrification in a detective agency in Motherless Brooklyn, Edward Norton’s directorial adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 novel.

Remember when Edward Norton was one of the hottest actors in Hollywood? Jesus those were the days. Back at the turn of the century, Norton was working with the likes of David Fincher, Spike Lee, and Tony Kaye before he committed career suicide by publicly disowning American History X.

About that. One of the reasons Kaye hates the final film so much is its protracted editing process in which his leading star wrestled away control of the film. And it’s wasn’t the last time either. Over the years he’s cultivated a bad rep for getting in scraps with writers and directors. Norton considers it collaboration. Others have called it creative interference. In a sense Motherless Brooklyn is his way of putting his money where his mouth is.

This isn’t Norton’s first time in the director’s seat, but it’s notably more ambitious than his rom-com debut Keeping the Faith. Based on the novel of the same name, but given a transplant from the late nineties to the fifties, the film follows Lionel (Norton), a hapless private eye who’s afflicted with Tourette’s. When his boss is murdered in a shady deal, Lionel decides to find out what got him whacked, uncovering a huge conspiracy that involves gentrification and institutionalised white supremacy. Norton is swinging for the fences with this intricate story, but in the process, he’s managed to whack himself in the face with the bat.

Despite its near two and a half hour running time, or perhaps because of it, Motherless Brooklyn feels scattered and indistinct, weighed down by the sheer amount of characters it introduces. It wants to say… something about gentrification, but by the time the film concludes, it’s a little hard to parse Norton’s intention. Everyone greets the looming destruction of these communities with a defeated shrug, which you might say is a cynical bit of commentary, but it jars with the achingly sincere build-up. Mind you, it’s the only thing that stops the film from veering into white savior territory.

Not helping matters is the fact that Motherless Brooklyn is a very drab film. Cinematographer Dick Pope has done incredible work, which makes the flat lighting and uninspired compositions here even more puzzling. Norton’s fails to show much directorial flare either, which is a big problem when you’re in well worn noir territory. The material is virtually on its hands and knees, begging someone to put a bit of stank on it, but it gets none.

There’s a stacked cast – including Alec Baldwin, Willem Dafoe and Michael K. Williams – that delivers the creaky monologues and mountains of exposition with consummate professionalism. And Norton admittedly acquits himself well as Lionel, especially considering the potential for his Tourette’s impression to go down like Sean Penn in I Am Sam.

But, ultimately, the film is too flavourless, too diluted by its desire to be many things at once. It’s a shame, because buried in Motherless Brooklyn is a good story. Maybe next time Norton can get a little help in the editing room. After all, we know he’s not adverse to a little collaboration.

Words: Jack O’Higgins

Illustration: Morgan


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